Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My Journey

I was just past the 50 mile marker of my 100 mile race when suddenly I began thinking about my three kids. Who would have ever guessed a 190 pound man, running all by himself in the middle of nowhere, would be hyperventilating – overcome with emotion? It had absolutely nothing to do with the mileage or the fact that I have been running for more than 10 hours. The combination of solidarity, determination, and adrenaline, presented a rare opportunity to open up my soul and look at myself from the inside.
It was one of those euphoric moments that athletes experience only once in a blue moon. I thought about the sacrifices my family has made for me. I thought about the countless encouraging messages and conversation my little girls had given to me. More than that, I thought about all those individuals who helped me get to where I was; all of my co-athletes, my training partners, my community, my CrossFit family, the haters, the motivators, the coaches, those individuals who have no vested interests or validated position, all of whom touched my life on my journey. To know an average Joe is to know their journey. Here is my journey.
Dubbed as “The Average Joe,” I was once a beer-drinking, cigarette smoking, college rugby player who ballooned to over 310 pounds. Through running and CrossFit, I shed over 118 pounds in just under a year. I am an underdog by nature and genuinely believe in the fight and persistence of the human spirit. It is near impossible for me to leave an obstacle untested, pushing the limits of the human mind and body. This philosophy is the foundation for my initial attraction to both CrossFit and ultra- running.
 On a daily basis, I find myself making every effort to enforce this same fighting desire and determination through sound training and smart decisions. A husband to a CrossFitting wife and a father to three beautiful little girls, I believe that a healthy lifestyle is essential. It is a breath of fresh air, knowing that the tools and resources to achieve such a lifestyle are neither exclusive nor elusive. CrossFit has brought a new understanding of fitness and wellness to our family and community.
I began running over a decade ago. The original motivation was simple and straightforward- to get back into shape for rugby alumni match. Initially this was a painful and taxing form of self induced torture. Each and every muscle in my body was immediately coerced back to life, followed by almost instantaneous aching. Despite the initial exhaustion and difficulty, the rapid results from this labor- intensive type of physical activity were a significant motivating factor that kept me going back for more. The realization that within my own mind and body was the key to improving me, and therefore the quality of my life became unearthed from dormancy. What started out as an arduous task transformed into routine.
I quickly discovered that I could instantly and directly affect how I felt during my runs, by simply watching what I ate and put into my body. With surprising ease I ditched the soda, Swiss cake rolls (among many other longtime safety-nets and overdue bad habits) and went to a more balanced diet. In my evolutionary tract to fitness, I found myself signing up for 5k’s and longer races. I was soon awakened to the reality that increasingly longer events require some semblance of training and planning. The appeal and straightforwardness of this notion was amazing: I have a goal, and then in turn, I have a path.
My developing knowledge of fitness, as well as smaller athletic accomplishments, grew in conjunction with my desire to go longer and farther than anyone I had ever known. People often shake their heads; they look confused, or laugh at me when I discuss my involvement in events that push the mind and body in ultimate tests of athleticism. Rather than try to explain, my standard answer has always been, “Who else do you know that has done it?” From one event, competition and race to another, the desire to do something longer, bigger or faster began to take life. This was a natural progression for me, as I have always been motivated to leave my mark on this planet for both myself and for those whom I have the honor of meeting along the way. Inevitably, my journey reached a point where marathons and Ironman triathlons were no longer good enough.
Coinciding with the time that the need for greater accomplishments was planted in my mind, I began to feel the effects of so many years of training. I had become prone to back injuries and my regular training recovery had become very lengthy. I felt strongly that there was an underlying, missing link in my fitness and training program and couldn’t shake that thought. In 2007, on a recommendation from a training friend, I started to go to a new gym in the area that offered boot camp style classes. These classes were designed to be exceptionally difficult, physically exhausting and done within a short time frame. I was immediately hooked by the intensity. An even greater appeal was the tight-knit community created by the small group environment and individualized focus.
One year later, this small fitness studio decided to get a CrossFit affiliation and CrossFit Milford came to be. I was completely unaware that this small studio would become the mother-ship for all CrossFit boxes in New England.  It led the way for functional fitness, and an explosion of later box owners populating Connecticut, New York, and the surrounding areas. Training, coaching or working out, I was surrounded by some of the greatest future coaches, affiliate owners and motivating individuals.  Personalities like Jason Laydon, Ben Kelly, Lauren Plumey, Ben Burgeron, and at that time Heather Keenan, were surrounding pillars of motivation. In true CrossFit style, I was welcomed and immediately hooked by the community. It is a contagious sentiment, felt by all who are drawn to our community, to strive for continuous improvement and goal attainment.
As CrossFit continued to grow, so did the need for athletes, such as myself, whose background and goals focused on endurance events and training programs that emphasized those specific needs. Brian McKinzie and CrossFit Endurance turned out to be that missing link. Jason Laydon and I dove in head first, immediately becoming certified through his program. With the certification came the need to evaluate our newfound knowledge. We needed to flex our program and training tactics and expound upon skills that we had learned. In 2009 I teamed up with my long-time training partners, friends, and fitness gurus; Vin Lindsley and Bobby Wheeler. We decided to open our own CrossFit box, and as a result, Elm City CrossFit was born.
The goal of Elm City was to create an intimate fitness experience that combines normal, hardworking people, as well as, veteran endurance athletes looking for the next generation of training and fitness. Our main focus was the fundamental heart of CrossFit: small group training and individual attention is not a luxury but a necessity. In the past few years, my partners and I have developed and revolutionized various types of traditional endurance programs. These pieces were then integrated with the key principles of CrossFit and other essential elements of endurance programing.
It became our theme to preach the gospel to anyone who would listen: proper nutrition, solid strength exercise, and the right mix of interval, tempo, and training volumes. The proper fundamentals produced amazing results to anyone following the plan. As desired, our athletes no longer required the relentless hours and tremendous mileage to train for long distance events. Exercise and training had become our science, and by fine-tuning the process, we were able to provide more efficient methods of training. Our prescription had taken even the most experienced endurance athletes and rendered remarkable results with regard to individual success, and in many cases, setting personal records. Thus with the forward momentum of this lifestyle and success in training, I naturally found myself in the middle of (another) 100 mile race.
It was 3:15 the morning of the Shipwreck 100 miler in Outer Banks, North Carolina. I had been in this situation before. Just two years prior, I toed the starting line in my first attempt at the 100 mile ultra-marathon distance in the very same state. In 2010 I began the 100 mile race only six days prior to qualifying for the Northeast Regional CrossFit Games, being in the top 30 at the Sectional Competition. The following twenty-eight and a half hours of that race were an undeniable and excruciating reminder that endurance athletes should run more and CrossFitters should stick to snatches of the occasional 800 meter runs. I completed the race, a feat of which I pulled from somewhere deep inside of myself, but could barely walk for the next two weeks. As my wife pushed me through the airport in a wheelchair awaiting our flight home,  I thought about how I had only logged an impressive 53 total miles in the four months leading up to the race. This somehow translated into my 100 mile run in 28 hours. Sitting in that wheelchair, I saw how CrossFit was my golden ticket in getting me across the finish line.
Today was going to be different. Confident and nervous at the same time, I knew today would be truly unforgettable. Unlike in 2010, today I was 20 pounds lighter, mentally focused, and physically in a much better place. In the months leading up to the race, I had taken my nutrition to an entirely new level. Throughout the years, I had followed the Paleo diet, the cornerstone of my coaching and training, but this time around I elected to take an alternate route. Adhering to the advice of my good friend and co-owner Vin Lindsley, I decided to try a couple of new approaches to further dial in my caloric intake as well as my sugar levels. The result was an immediate reduction in body fat and overall weight, which was crucial, as I have no genetic predisposition to a runner’s lithe body.  I began to recover more quickly from my workouts and noticeably more intense. This was not only the motivation and forward momentum I needed, but would also prove to be the most defining factor of my ultra-running success.
Although it was March, the wind was harsh and acerbic, and the cold temperatures were ruthless at the starting line. The race began “where the road begins,” literally – this was the tagline of the race. We would start beachside, where Route 12 begins, a road that would take us due South for the next 101 miles. As the national anthem cut the morning wind, my mind was focused on just one acute, driving thought: I just want to start moving. For a moment I was briefly taken by the irony of the situation. Typically, in such an enduring race, a runner will search both mentally and physically to be done, but today I just wanted to get started. With little fan-faire and festivity the race director finally said, “GO!”-- And we were off. The flock of eighty-five runners shuffled forward in a sea of reflective running gear and headlamps. By my third step, all flurrying butterflies of nervousness were gone. I was now poised to focus for the unbelievably long WOD in front of me.
In the ultra-running world, completing a 100 mile race in less than 24 hours is the golden standard for ultimate success. If one were able to accomplish this, it is said that he or she would “buckle.” This means the competitor is given a belt buckle, not only signifying completion of the course, but with a time under the 24 hour mark. In the years leading up to this and other races, I was in awe of the physical readiness and the mental aptitude of these gifted athletes. I often envisioned crossing the finish line with much celebration in under 24 hours and awarded my buckle, much like an Olympian is given the gold medal; with cheers, applause, and due amount of pomp and circumstance. It was a distant dream; I could never run that fast or be “those guys”. Winning such achievements was slender and angular, by real runners, probably born runners. I was a runner by trade and not by design. I was much better constructed for heavy deadlifts and squats with my short, stocky build.
 It is often said that this 100 mile distance is broken down into two parts. The first half is done with your feet, and the second half is done with your mind. I was poised to stay on my strategy and hold on as long as possible until the wheels fell off, not knowing exactly when the crash would happen, but knowing it was inevitable. My mantra was to stick to my plan as long as possible; I had practiced my strategy for months. I would run, and then walk, closely monitoring my work-to-rest ratio with maintaining consistency. Keeping par with this pace was equivalent to short, ten minute workouts, all day long. My sole thought was getting to the next walk break.   This strategy enabled me to concentrate on the present, one small goal at a time. As a result, my attention was diverted from the broad picture, an all –encompassing scope of persistent and seemingly uninterrupted miles which lay ahead of me. From the very first step over the starting line, I hoped to maintain this routine as long as possible. It was important that I stay under control, relaxed, and not overexert myself at any time.
Ten miles in, I fell into a very comfortable pace. Nearly the entire field was ahead of me at this point, due to the fact that I was walking so early. Un-phased, it was a welcome change not to be bumping elbows with the pack, caught up in a big group of runners. I was happy with my pace and strategy. My feet, however, were already feeling the effects of the run. I had been training with trial shoes and was on the fence as to what shoes I would wear to run the actual race.  To compound my frustration, I was unable to find the exact shoe I had been training in the entire time. There had been two newer versions of the shoe that were released since my last purchase, so the shoe had been slightly altered. For your average individual, this may be inconsequential, but to an ultra-runner this could spell disaster. I could already feel hot spots burning the soles of my feet. My mind was made up; I had to switch to a road shoe. My new road shoes had never even been out of the shoebox, tissue paper still stuffed protectively in them. I was about to ask my wife to not only ,open the new shoe box, but maybe open up Pandora’s box of disappointment and regret, but I felt I had no choice. At the twenty mile mark, the switch was made, along with a nice layer of duct tape (a truly all-purpose product) that was applied on the bottom of my feet to help with the hotspots.
The mark of a good athlete is to have a solid plan and practice it. The other indicator is the ability to think in the moment -- to think on your feet. At mile thirty, after all of those miles, and all of those hours of training with one nutritional plan, my stomach would not cooperate. This would prove to be another obstacle in my pursuit of my ultimate goal. Throwing a wrench into my well-laid plan was an unforeseen issue that had never occurred in my training regimen. It was time to make the call. I had to switch my nutritional plan. I decided to scale back on the amount of calories and get back to a more traditional and natural approach. The synthetic nutrition and the overload of calories, which carried me up to mile thirty, had finally caused my stomach to raise the white flag. I decided to take it back to the basics- coconut water, gels and pretzel rods.
 Even though my stomach discomfort continued, I began passing runners. I was now into the type of distance where the body and mind began to break down. Any semblance of technical running form is lost, and reality sets in for most people that this is more than just running a race. Like most other endurance events I had participated in, I am by far the largest person in the field. When passing other runners I get nasty and confused looks. The stares speak for themselves; eyes asking “How can this big guy be passing me?” Fortunately, my only focus rested on my strategy - just hang on – even through the stomach distress, which soon dissipated, leading to my ability to pass people. It was obvious when I passed through the aid station at mile forty, with my sleeveless shirt and non-runner type build, that my strength and power would come in handy today. I was overcome with further encouragement and elation as I made my way forward and heard one of the race officials yell out – “Damn, the big man can run!”
With twenty mile an hour winds at my back for the entire day, this element was not a big concern of mine, but it was to others in the field.  The runners were led into a lighthouse, situated just past the forty-five miles mark, where there was an aid station. This would be one of the most significant time-qualification cutoffs for runners, who failed to reach this point by the twelve-hour mark. I arrived in fewer than ten. As soon as I stopped, the wind sliced through, sparking instantaneous hypothermia. Along the sidelines, my wife, pacing my every thought and movement, was posted at each aid station along my journey.  Frantically, she yelled at me to keep moving as I departed the station while putting on additional clothes and my head phones. In a few short miles, I would be at the halfway mark, running across Bonner Bridge, a two and a half mile bridge connecting the northern and southern Outer Banks.
 The wind fiercely persisted as I approached the bridge. I could no longer feel my face as I strapped my hat down, in an effort to keep it from being swept off my head and into the Atlantic. I was almost beyond the bridge when my focused changed. In one single step I could feel a blister pulsating from my left foot. My pinky toe had fallen victim to the first blister of the day, and it was distractingly raw and painful. I came off the bridge and ducked into the aid station. Upon further investigation of my little toe, the blister had already popped, evidence it had been there longer than I initially thought. I applied another round of duct tape circling my toe and foot, and I was back on the road.
As I continued to pass runners, I contemplated how, never, in my wildest dreams, had I anticipated having such an amazing run. Motivated by the fact that my good friend and training partner, Mike, was going to be there to pace me to the finish, I wanted to keep with my run-walk strategy as long as I could. He would be joining me at mile sixty two. This is when it hit me. I was incredulous as I began doing the math in my head. I had already broken all of my previous best times at each ascending distance. If I could only get to Mike in thirteen hours, then he can pull me the last thirty eight miles in eleven hours, right? No, it is impossible for me to do that. I know extremely decorated runners who have been in this position before, only to have the 24-hour finish dream become lost within the grip of the last few miles. Like a madman, I literally started yelling at myself as I ran down the desolate road, all by myself. ”I am strong! Today is my day!”
I ran into the aid station at mile sixty two. Mike was not even expecting me for a little while longer so when he saw me entering the aid station, he knew I was all business. Utilizing the same methodology as I did at the other aid stations throughout the day, I did not want to waste any time. My goal was to blow through the stations as quickly as possible, picking up only what was vital to my onward ambition. A small cup of soup, another hand-full of pretzel rods, and we were out the door.
Mike and I were on a mission. I wish I could tell you that I was joyful about my progress, but my only focus was to keep running on my “work interval” and walking on  my “rest interval”, and to ensure my feet did not stop carrying me forward. Just hang on, just hang on. I was not very good company for Mike as I decided to keep the demons out by blasting my music, even though I now had another runner to accompany me. My isolation did nothing to diminish my partner’s companionship. Training partners know you, and Mike knew exactly what I needed. He knew I needed to keep my mind off my failing body.
The next major intersection in the course would be the final main aid station, another lighthouse at mile eighty-seven. As billed, this stretch of the race would prove to be the most difficult. The road, the terrain, the wind and all of the other elements remained unchanged, but you could see the lighthouse from over fifteen miles away. An unwavering, unfaltering, beacon in the distance, it both taunted me and offered reprieve, as it stood looming. Painstakingly, the lighthouse grew larger and larger as we gradually approached.  It seemed like an eternity getting to the marker. The night had turned dark and the only signs of activity were the sounds of the crashing waves from the ocean’s edge and the occasional passing of fellow runners on the course.
Shortly after leaving a water stop, around mile seventy five, exhaustion knocked the wind out of me. My watch alarm sounded for another work interval; it instructed I start running. Through breaths, I told Mike I could feel the wheels falling off and I was going to have to decrease the run interval and walk more. Mike suggested that I just start moving and rest half-way through the work interval, cutting it in half. I was silent to his suggestion as my body was not responding, and my silence was simply taken as agreement. I peeked at my watch a few minutes later, thinking that I can do anything for a few more minutes. I was completely numb to the blaring music in my ear, and I was only concerned with my next walk break. I glanced at my watch again, willing the time to go by; only fifteen seconds until the half-way rest that Mike had suggested.
 This is what my race has become – a negotiation with myself. I thought to myself, even as my body threatened to collapse and betray me at any minute, it still wasn’t as bad as doing burpees. It is not as bad as doing most of those grueling workouts that I have been doing for years. In my CrossFit career, I had become somewhat comfortable being uncomfortable and this is the same thing. I must continue to move. I kept telling myself to keep calm and stay under control. I use this same mindset and strategy with most workouts that I do – even the most difficult ones.  I look down at my watch again. Only one minute left in the run interval. The minute ended with the beeping of my watch and, with little fanfare and celebration, Mike commented “Good work brother.” I knew then that I would not even question my work interval again. Who could have ever thought that a 100 mile race, a grueling test of body and mind would be weighed, tested and decided in a few, short minutes?  I was ready for my continued challenge. This one single interval would decide the fate of my entire race.
Mike and I pushed on like workers on a mission. We came into the final main aid station, relieved to finally be at the lighthouse that had, at some points, seemed unattainable. We had been running towards this post for hours, but we both knew the small victory would be short-lived. My feet were killing me, and I needed another round of duct tape on them. I also got a fresh pair of socks on my feet, now, ready as I ever would be, to tackle the remaining thirteen miles. Mike and I were both well aware that a sub-twenty- four- hour time was painfully close. The final thirteen miles were broken up into two, 6.5 mile sections. Mike is a project manager and an engineer; the gears working in his head were racing so fervently you could see him mentally strategize pace scenarios with each step we took.
Unlike the other rest stops throughout the day, this one I would not stop at. Mike instructed me to just keep going and he will fill my camelback with water and he would catch up to me after completing his tasks. I continue walking past the water stop while I heard Mike discussing with my wife the need to keep pushing. He instructed her to drive up to the 3.5 mile mark, leaving only 3 miles to the finish. The course was very poorly marked with regards to mile markings and Mike wanted to make sure his calculations were correct for a certain sub-24 finish.  While Mike was filling the camelback, I was on a rest interval. I looked at my watch and calculated that it took us 90 minutes to complete the first of two 6.5 mile sections. Mike ran up behind me and said that we were going to need to hurry, as a sub 24 hour finish is right in our reach. I knew at that point that I wanted to push my body farther than it had gone before; the final 6.5 mile leg was my last. I was not only motivated to get off my feet as fast as possible, I was also feeling that familiar burning desire to continue pushing the envelope, to go faster and further, much like we do in everyday CrossFit fashion. I wanted the race to be over, but I also wanted to finish in less than 90 minutes in that final leg; I could feel the energy building deep inside my exhausted body.
As was prearranged, my wife was parked along the side of the road with her hazard lights flashing. We were on our rest interval as we walked up beside the car. Only three miles left she said. You can do it. At that instant, my watch went off, indicating that our work interval was on. So we started running again – just like we have done literally more than one hundred times before, during this day. My run interval had been set to eight minutes for the entire day. Mike told my wife to go up another mile and pull off the road. This was a great motivation to have something to run towards. I could see the car pull off in the distance. We continued to run toward those blinking lights, and all I could think about was that I only had three miles to go. As we ran alongside my wife’s car, the rest interval timer went off. Mike was ecstatic to be one mile closer, but I was focused on the fact that, after all my body has been through, after all the mental bargaining and pleas to be answered – I just ran an 8- minute mile! It was moments like this that made me believe that I had earned my place in this race – yes, this big man CAN run!
I had envisioned the finish line for months now. I was playing different scenarios in my mind all day long, about how I was going to cross the finish line. My plan was to let out a stern and monstrous yell at the finish line, but now that I had arrived, a different scenario began to unfold. I rounded one last corner seeing my wife’s rental car and her standing beside it. It was a blur as Mike and I took one more opportunity to pass yet another runner in our march towards the finish line. A woman in a passenger van opens the door and yells, “Come past me. I am the finish line.”  The finish line was not what I had pictured in my mind. There was no fanfare, no ticker-tape finish that I had envisioned.  For me it was perfect. My breaths were short as I held back tears. I crossed the line and stared at the ground. I kept thinking back to all those people who had given me the motivation and strength to get me to this point. As I stood back up, teary- eyed, the race director said, “Awesome finish!  Your time is 22 hours and 17 minutes.”  She handed me a huge silver sub-24-Hour Finisher’s buckle, and I smiled from ear to ear. I did it!  In the hours following my perfect finish, I learned that over half of the athletes who started this event, had dropped out for various reasons. As for me, my body recovered quickly except for my feet. Little did I think that, as great of an idea as the duct tape was, I failed to consider what would happen when I crossed that finish line, and all that tape had to be removed? My feet took a bit longer to recover, but it was all worth it.
My long-time training partner recently asked me if my success was a product of Elm City CrossFit or was it something else. My answer was a quick one. It was Elm City CrossFit. Without Elm City, I never would have had the strength and core fitness it takes to support my body for this distance. Additionally, I noted that my fellow runners logged hundreds of miles weekly during their training. I was able to create the same level of fitness through shorter, intense training workouts. On reflection of my total number of miles, I ran in 4 months, what the other guys were doing in a week. This is a bi-product of CrossFit and CrossFit Endurance. The third and final piece is the lasting one for me. It is the community and the responsibility to give more of yourself than you would ever have done before. What started out as a path of self-actualization has transformed into a life-changing experience, returning me to my CrossFit community. CrossFit is hard – but so is anything worth having in this world. With CrossFit smarts and strategy, I was able to focus on the task at hand, while ignoring the complaints of my body. For all of these qualities, I thank Elm City CrossFit’s  community for giving me the opportunity to realize my goals, change my life, and become a part of this unique and extended family. I hope to inspire other Elm City athletes to achieve their own personal fitness goals in pursuit of their own illusive finish line.