Sunday, March 20, 2011

I run because I love being the underdog...

In March of 2011, I tackled one of the most unusual (if not THE most unusual) running related challenges ever. For those who loathe running on treadmills, avert your gaze now. Me and four other harriers (Chris Lundy, Nathan Yanko, Mark McManus, and Mary Fagan Churchill) tackled a 100K Treadmill Relay.

Why would someone even want to do something like this? Well, the chance of winning $10,000 was enough for me to sign up AND I am one of those rare breeds that actually 'enjoys' locking in a pace on the treadmill and just rolling for miles. Last year when I was in perhaps the best marathon shape of my life, I cruised through 20 miles on the treadmill at 6:00 pace.

Once the opportunity to participate in this event presented itself, I promptly reached out to assemble a strong team to tame this beast. I was fortunate enough to get a few ringers on my team right off the bat. But, none of us really knew what we were up against. We didn't know what the 100K course would look like, nor did we know 'who' we were competing against.

Two days before the race one of our runners was felled with an injury. Me and my teammates went into full scramble mode trying to track down a solid female runner to fill in at the eleventh hour. We had no chance at winning $10,000 with a team of 4 AND I would get dinged a $500 security deposit if we didn't show up. Fortunately, the fates smiled and we managed to find a solid replacement at the last minute. But, there were more challenges on the horizon.

A pre-competition meeting was scheduled for Thursday night and conveniently NONE of us were available to attend. I begged a close friend/coach (Toby Silver) to help us out and attend this meeting. Once again, we got lucky and Toby saved our asses and attended the meeting.

Later that evening me and my teammates convened and discussed a possible strategy. This event was unique in that the treadmill we were using was designed to simulate pretty much any course on the planet. In theory, we could have been running the toughest 100K on the planet. As it turns out, we were tackling the last 100K of Stage 17 of the Tour De France.

As if this wasn't enough, we were competing against at least one team that had more than a couple runners who were capable of running marathon times that would qualify them for the Olympic Trials (2:19 for men, 2:46 for women). To put things in perspective, my marathon PR is a relatively pedestrian 2:43.

I was nervous that night as I went to bed and only slept a few hours. This was about more than money for me. I was going to be competing against people who had run at the collegiate level (which I never did), people who had won minor/major events (I never have), and people who were logging 100+ miles/week (I never have). Some of these people could knock out 5:00 pace for miles. I had run 2 miles ONCE in 10:22 on a track.

I could have easily been intimidated and psyched myself out. But, despite being generally outclassed by many of the people in this event, I have always been able to rise to the occasion and I have always felt I have the heart (if not the credentials) to compete as hard as anyone and truth be told, I LOVE being the underdog. Nothing gets me more jacked up.

Race morning arrived and there were more than a handful of quasi-elite and sub-elite runners toeing the line. For the uninitiated, runners are 'generally' lumped into elites (the ones who win the big events..think Sammy Wanjiru, Haile Gebrselassie, Paula Radcliffe, etc.), sub-elite (runners who qualify for the Olympic Trials or hover around this level), and 'local champions' (hacks like me).

I reminded myself again that I loved being an underdog and despite the credentials of the people I was running with, I was as mentally tough as anyone and could endure pain with the best of them. After what felt like an eternity, the race finally started. Our treadmill immediately had technical difficulties and we were diverted to another treadmill. This was not the kind of start any of us had expected and I couldn't help but wonder if this would hinder us.

We soldiered on and remarkably enough we were in the hunt jockeying for first position. My first leg was coming around and virtually all of the men competing in the event had the treadmill pegged at 12MPH (5:00 pace) for the flat stretches. I hopped on the treadmill and followed suit....despite the fact that I had never managed this pace for even 2 miles.

But, adrenaline and my ability to zone out on the treadmill would serve me well. I managed to run nearly two miles (we were required to run at least one mile per leg) at 5:00 pace before handing off to my teammate. We were rolling and I'm fairly confident the other teams were beginning to wonder who we were and if we were for real. 20 miles later we were still right there with the frontrunners.

My second leg was about to come around and again I was being confronted with the notion of knocking out another two miles at 5:00 pace. I had never done it ONCE, let alone twice. But, my team needed me and on a personal level, I needed to show myself that I could hang with them. I've always had a real affinity for Guns N' Roses 'Welcome to the Jungle'. I put this song on repeat and blasted another two miles at 12MPH.

40 miles later we were still right there. Unfortunately, one of our teammates had to bail out at 2PM. We 'should' have been wrapped by this time, but due to numerous delays and technical difficulties this wasn't going to happen. If we weren't underdogs before, we certainly were now with only '4' runners versus the '5' everyone else had.

The clock crept towards 3:30PM and we were still 15 miles from the finish. Once again the event delays and technical difficulties came back to haunt us as we lost another runner who had to go to work. Reduced to '3' runners, it was going to take transcendent efforts on the part of all '3' of us to pull this one out as we approached the toughest part of the run with 18, 24, 27, and 30 percent grade hills.

It had been eons since I had done any serious climbing and my body literally went into shock as I tried to power my way through a mile at a 27 percent grade. I would take a mile (or two) at 12MPH any day of the week over this nonsense. I labored painfully and was reduced to walking hunched over. It would take 20 minutes to cover a mile before I tapped out.

The next few miles (and hours) went by in a blur. At some point, I learned we were no longer jockeying for first position (no real surprise), but were still in the hunt (despite only running with 3 people) to place and score some cash. It was now 4:30PM and we should have been done 3 hours ago, but there were still several brutal miles that were ahead of us.

Survival instinct (or something like this) kicked in for all three of us and getting some cash would be great, but we were all running on fumes. This was a war of attrition and everyone was in their own personal hurt locker.

I gutted my way through another brutal, hunched over mile at 27 percent grade battling cramps, fatigue, and the fear that my body was simply going to give out and our team would be done. Fortunately, my body held on and I tagged out. Unfortunately, I needed to log at least another half mile in order for me to be done for the day.

My inability to knock out one more half mile left me in the unenviable position of having to likely run at least another mile (or more). My legs were shot, my vision was fogged, and some form of fatigue induced delirium was starting to set in. I was no longer sure of where I was or why I was there.

I staggered to the restroom and tried to gather myself one more time. It was now 5:30. I had been at it since 7:30AM and somehow had to rally one more time. We were in fourth position, by how much I didn't know. We still were in a position to walk away from this with some cash and I owed it to myself and my teammates to lay it all on the line one more time.

I knocked back some flat Pepsi, drank some water, and tried to find another wind. My teammate was heroically tackling a mile at 30 percent grade and I knew he wouldn't have much left after finishing this mile. The last two miles of the race were flat and it was entirely possible he would need me to take care of both.

I suppose it was only fitting that he tagged off to me for the last mile and change. I was the one who got everyone in this mess to begin with, I might as well finish it. I hopped on the treadmill and immediately cranked it up to sub-6:00 pace. I gazed over at the 5th place team and saw they were still climbing. We were ahead, but by how much I didn't know. Despite my fatigue, I couldn't afford to back off.

There wasn't much left in the tank, but I threw everything I had into the last stretch and while it became apparent in the last half mile or so that we were going to take fourth place and score $2500, I wasn't taking any chances. One last time I cranked the treadmill to 12MPH. One can never be too sure.

We pulled it off. Despite all the challenges and adversity, we showed up, fought valiantly, and walked away with a well deserved $2500. We didn't win it all, but considering all the challenges we faced, this was a complete victory in my book.

One of my favorite quotes is not from a runner, but from Andre Agassi, 'I don't have the answers, I don't pretend that I do. Just keep fighting and maybe something good happens.'

Andre's right. Never underestimate heart and never stop fighting. Good things will happen. I run because I love being the underdog.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Great post, Matt, and congrats on the excellent performance.