0 to 50*
“Oh shoot.” She yelled.
Mom’s white knuckles twisted the steering wheel violently. Everything went black.
Restrained by the lap belt, my upper body swung forward. My left arm, encased in plaster, swung directly into my face. The cast broke my nose and left shoulder simultaneously. My right arm punched the dashboard and broke instantly above the wrist. My eyeglasses flew off and everything was blurry. Red droplets fell from my nose and popped as they hit the white plaster cast. Red streaked my t-shirt as I went into shock.
We were hit by a drunk driver attempting an illegal pass. It was 5PM, she bar-hopped since 11AM.
I woke and slept unaware of day or night in the intensive care unit of Northern Illinois Medical Center. Everything was hazy. It wasn’t until 5-days later I received a 2-pint blood transfusion (1/3 my body’s capacity) that I woke fully. I was moved to the pediatric ward and spent 6 weeks isolated in my bed..
My left arm fused at the elbow, left humerus stunted from the broken shoulder, and my right arm was thin and weak in its cast. My leg muscles atrophied from all the time prostrate in bed. I could no longer walk.
I was at Zero.
Unaware laying in the hospital bed I never considered that I couldn’t walk. I grew up outside in rural Illinois, rode my bike to school, built half-pipes and climbed trees. Walking was assumed. I did not understand how my legs no longer worked.
Walking became my singular focus. I learned again like a child, one step at a time, every day for weeks in the hospital.
I spent a year in physical therapy , progress kept in a training log. My first results-measured training. It was a long process but I achieved an almost-full physical recovery, though emotional injuries endured.
Struggling in school the next two years having missed so much. I got picked on for my weakness. Replacing low social status in school with adventure, I focused my hyperactive, shy demeanor, into singular goals: earning a black-belt in karate, achieving Eagle-Scout, ski racing, and, skipping two years of high school finishing college at the University of Montana with two degrees before I could legally drink. I trained, obsessively, as a climber and pushed my limits.
I redpointed 5.12’s, a hard rock climbing grade, always pushing harder, at one point leading the Western Montana Mountain Rescue Team on the first successful recovery mission with another teammate. I combined climbing with endurance training, doing peak marathons with my friend Chuck. Each goal got riskier. Success was fleeting, perpetual and elusive.
The impact of decelerating from 50 to 0 reverberated throughout my life. I was changed forever by the Cub Scout den mother who drank too much.
But we were lucky.
More than 47,000 Americans were killed in car wrecks in 1988. 3 million people on average are injured in crashes each year according to the NHTSA. Almost 341,000 receive permanent, incapacitating injuries, not to mention unmeasured, debilitating psychological inflictions.
In August 2008 I entered the Mt. Baldy Run-to-The-Top, a Southern California race. I was hardly running but trained for 3 weeks and finished a decent 1h38m on the 8 ¾ mile, 4,000 ft elevation gain course.
On the drive home I wondered.
I’d done triathlons, raced XC mountain bikes and adventure-raced, but I could only think of an ultramarathon. I wanted a 50-mile, kick-my-ass ultra. This became a metaphor for the last 21 years: how I faced every goal in my life.
The Leona Divide is a 50 mile race with total elevation of 9,500 feet. I looked at the website daily and studied the elevation profile. Huge spikes and valleys kept me motivated, so I planned.
An ultra is a mentally and physically demanding journey. It requires constant nutrition and pace calculation.
The 50 mile plan became a symbolic capstone from learning to walk again.
I went from 0 to 50 and it changed my life.
I trained using what I learned alpine climbing: I combined speed running for strength, weekday runs averaging 4.2 miles, with weekend endurance running up to 31 miles in terrain similar to The Leona.
I trained alone.
Previous experience and common sense defined my training:
3. Mileage on terrain
4. Speed & Endurance
My longest organized run prior to the Leona was 8 ¾ miles. My longest personal run was 31 miles.
I focused longer runs in the Santa Monica Mountains. The plan gave me elevation gains/losses similar to race conditions. This strategy paid off by knowing my thresholds and avoiding redlining.
I filled my training runs with constant nutrition calculations and iPod earbuds.
My approach to nutrition was simple:
a. <400 calories per hour intake with no refined sugars (sucrose, glucose)
b. 30% replacement hydration, soy-protein enriched supplements for exercise longer than 2 hours
c. electrolytes to avoid cramping and B6 to prevent exercise-induced depression
d. recovery meals combining whey protein and glycogen. This prevented energy peaks and valleys, and sped recovery.
I let go of my training schedule as a law and used it as a guideline letting my body define its recovery.
By two months prior to the race I ran 30 mile training loops with 6-8K elevation gain/loss improving my speed but I was stuck in training mode. I needed optimal recovery and race day performance. I needed team advice.
I called Tracy and Chuck, two world-class athlete friends that gave me the same advice: taper carefully while running during the week prior to the race. The strategy provided recovery time, optimal muscle glycogen, and kept me race-ready.
The race began at 6AM, about 60 miles from home. I woke up at 4:46 and freaked thinking I’d just blown it.
I arrived just 8 minutes late, I started the race, dead last with feet wrapped, drop bags in place, nutrition loaded and iPod ready. I started the 174-track playlist and started up the first hill – a 700 foot climb over 4 miles, Pink Floyd’s Animals kept me calm and focused.
The sun was at the angle that turns the dry desert valleys into ovens. We ran up and down like broiler chickens roasting. I passed several people suffering heat exhaustion so I leveled my pace to avoid overheating. A blister popped in mile 37. A minor issue and far from hydration, heat stroke, digestive, or structural injuries that can debilitate and cause a DNF or worse. The roughest miles were 42-48, climbing 1,100 feet in a baking valley with a taunting blister. The iPod luckily launched into a favorite Foo Fighters set and I cranked the volume, found solace in the pain and gulped fluid.
I finished the LD 50 in 10:53:10, qualifying for the Western States 100.
The Leona Divide changed me. I’d competed against the clock in a sanctioned event, exceeding my own expectation.
Reflecting on my path over the last 21 years and its relation to my most recent finish, Chuck sent some encouraging words:
“I warn you now – you have started a very crazy cycle where each accomplishment is judged by the previous one. Each time you have to go bigger and better to see what your body can accomplish. Welcome to my world… Walk the path grasshopper but know that it never ends for guys like you and me.”
I guess everyone has their own “50”: that one thing they dream of doing that they believe is out of reach. I imagine for most it is anything scary, testing your own capabilities to learn that you’re more capable than you think.
Some of us seek our gifts in the outdoors, pushing our limits in the raw environment to commune more closely with nature’s beauty, and to unlock hidden mysteries within ourselves. I just bought a surfboard and found my new “50” in the waves of the Pacific. Thanks to the Leona, I feel less fear and more calm as I paddle out into the twilight towards my new “50”.
*part of this post appeared in a 2010 issue of UltraRunning Magazine; this is the full, unedited version