In 2011 a patient and now friend Mark Matyazic asked me to crew him for the Badwater Ultra Marathon Foot Race. The first thing that poped to mind was how I’d have to take time of work, but then I quickly came around to thinking about what an experience this could be. I haven’t done anything really mind blowing since skydiving over a dacade ago, so I thought why not give it a go. Now here we are after my 2nd time crewing and I’m still enamored and deeply humbled by what I experienced – JessD
Whats makes Ultra runners different? Do you think Ultra running will make it into the Olympics, and would that be a good thing for the sport?
I think ultra runners are much more independent than most other sport demographics; the ‘do it yourself’ type and also fairly stubborn. I mean in ultra running you can’t really rely on anyone or anything else. All you need is shoes. Because it’s not very exciting to watch and takes so long to complete an event, I don’t see it being commercially viable for TV, ie Olympics.
Tell me about your first ultra run, and how you transitioned from Marathons to Ultras?
My first ultra was probably in high school. I used to just go out and run, sometimes for 4-5 hours or so. In college while lifeguarding there was a race that involved 13 miles of running and 13 miles of swimming. I won but it took all day. That got me hooked on ultra events. I don’t think I entered an ‘official’ ultra marathon though until maybe 10 years ago. I basically alternated between competing in marathons, swim races and triathlons for years, mostly using tri’s as a stepping stone before moving on to ultras. There just wasn’t anything really ‘epic’ about triathlons. Tri’s are just too commercial for my liking and way too predictable. I was looking for something more. Triathon has it’s place but I always felt ultras are where the human spirit can thrive.
Looking back, I have memories of most of my ultras burned into me, especially life changing events like Badwater. I didn’t/don’t have that with triathlon. I spent a lot of time in tri’s and they give a great training background before moving on to longer, more grueling events.
As a bodyworker I quickly noticed that Ultra runners seem to get hurt less than “normal” runners that say run 3-10 miles a week. What’s been your experience? Well I think ultras are the ‘weed out’ course for runners, sort of like organic chemistry is in colleget. There are a lot fewer ultra runners than the 10 mile a week runner. Those that tend to get injured more often just never have the opportunity to get to ultras. Those that do ultras seem to be those that have the bodies that get injured less. That being said, most of us have some type of nagging injury, just usually nothing that keeps us down for long. Also, the more years you run, the smarter you get about avoiding injuries. I’ve learned a lot just in the past few years on that.
How is Badwater different from other ultras?
Badwater is in a class by itself. I mean there is just nothing else that offers all the varied challenges in one day, in one race, plus it is just so raw.
You have the distance, the heat, the hills, some altitude, calorie and water issues, mental resolve and a host of other things. One just can’t explain Badwater until you complete it. It’s twice as hard as a typical hundred and several fold more difficult than say an Ironman or something. There are elements of Badwater you just never get to experience in other races. I mean your going hard all day, then at sunset, then all night, then at sunrise and on through the next day. You have to me strong in a lot of ways to get through that. Plus, nothing can change a person like Badwater can. You look at things and people different after something like that.
How was your training different this year from last year?
Not much different. I did more desert stuff and longer runs in the heat. Weird stuff like running in Palm Desert at noon for a few hours with no calories or salt and minimal water. Fun stuff like that.
It’s fun to be on a trail in the middle of nowhere, with minimal gear, and passing a group of military peeps training with all their gear and getting a ‘look’.
I did a bit more weight training too but different than what I did last year. I think its a lack of overall strength that have people slowing down in ultras. I learned that at triathlon. The stronger types usually excelled on the run stage.
How has your recovery been this time around compared to last year?
I can’t even explain the difference this year. I don’t know why that is other than mainlining on a new recovery product I’ve been toying with the past few months. I mean last year I was fairly trashed for a few months. This year I ran a 100 miler 4 1/2 weeks after Badwater and PR’d. I felt sort of ‘soggy’ the whole way but still beat my previous 100 mile time by an hour. I still feel pretty good but there’s an underlying tired feeling I’ve learned to listen too. Sept is going to be Travel and Movie Month 🙂
Tell me about your worst ultra experience and how you pushed through it?
That was Rocky Racoon where my water pack froze. My fingers also nearly froze so I couldn’t even open my calorie packs. I essentially only got water and calories at the aid stations. At mile 92 I was so hungry I sat there and ate one whole box of Oreo cookies, something like 3000 calories as it was an ‘Econo-Pak’. Of course I got sick 2 miles later. That combined with dyhydration made things so bad it took me 90 minutes to finish the last 3 miles. I am definitely not Cold Miser.
I essentially just ignored the whole thing, sort of removing myself from the entire day, and found myself at the finish line in about 18 hours. Not a great time but I did finish. That race qualified me for Badwater so I had to complete it. No real choice anyway when your in the middle of the woods. That’s another thing ultras offer, that need for independence. You can’t just drop and ride a sag truck back to the finish with a pile of excuses.
Have you ever felt like you were going to die on a run?
Oh that’s common. In ultras you usually start tapping on Deaths door around mile 70. Other sports just don’t give you that opportunity.
Tell me about “The Zone” and when it hit this time around.
That’s a strange place with some wicked real estate. I think everyone hits something like that in an ultra, usually at night and sometime after mile 50. Some hallucinate, some become delusional, some drop. For me, every time offers something a bit different but its definitely always a unique zip code. It has a lot to do with pain and meditation. I think its about as close as possible to an out of body experience as you’re going to get and it’s also sort of fun. This time, I was at about mile 72 and was basically tolerating about as much pain as I was going to take. I knew I had a solid 60 miles to go, a quarter of that was a 5000 foot climb, so I had to trash the pain somehow.
I know when I go into that Zonish place I don’t drink water or take calories or anything as I’m really not ‘here’, so I stopped at the crew truck, topped off with water and calories, said I wouldn’t need a pacer, or really anything for a few hours, and took off into the night.
You can sort of help yourself into the Zone with some meditation so I first sort of tried putting pain in a box and discarding it. That worked for a bit but the box seemed to find me. Next I started looking around at all the space around me, the earth below, space above and simply figured I’ll just leave for awhile….maybe hide from it. Not 30 seconds later was that usual ‘Womp!’ I hear and next thing I know I was doing a million mph diagonally up and to the right Check out: http://gritgutsandglory.wordpress.com/2012/07/
Again, I really don’t know what the Zone is but I think it’s the minds way of dealing with a situation it doesn’t want to deal with but has to. Not to oversimplify it but you see pain as a choice and simply opt that sense. Since pain is a pretty strong impulse, I think the brain has to do some outlandish things to escape. I swear something was helping me deal, as per the details above, but who knows.
Since Badwater I did another ultra a few weeks ago. Beast of Burden 100 (my crewchief talked me into it), and even there I hit a ‘mini-zone’ from about mile 85-95, so basically the race was over at 85 as I just cruised the last 5. The Zone is like a serious vacation from reality and you just never know where you’re going to go, who you’re going to meet and what wisdom you may come upon. With each visit I realize I change a bit. You see things differently and think a bit different. Some things you mellow on a bit and others you find more zeal. I’ve talked to others who’ve ‘visited’ and it seems like it just makes you want to do more, be more, see more and sort of avoid monotony, habits and patterns.
I think although the visits are infrequent and short, you can take a lot away from it and use that for personal growth.
What is your philosophy on running and has any person or particular experience helped shape it?
Well I just think it’s one of the most natural and most primitive things to do, with swimming as a close second, so your body, mind and soul, especially your soul, want to do it. I truly think everyone would if they didn’t let life get in the way. Running can unlock a lot of things if you let it, so long as you don’t let it rule you. Very few people I’ve met know this and this is why I think the comeraderie among ultra runners is tighter than any other sport. Running is like the opposite of death. Maybe that’s why the Zone is so cool as your riding that line.
There’s a lot of talk about “the right shoe” and “the correct way to run; “what are your thoughts?
Bunch a BS. ‘Pose’? what a joke. Go out and run. Your body will tell you what to do.
Whats next for you?
I don’t know. I travel around the world a lot and have done a lot of unique races. I try to stay clear of the heavily marketed, commercial things that every one and their brother has done. New York, Boston, etc. Less people have finished Badwater than have summited Everest. That’s the kind of stuff I like.
I may to Brazil 135 in January. There’s also a 4 day stage race on the archipelago of Panama in the Spring. There’s a cool new event running in the desert of Saudi Arabia. Maybe I’ll do them all, maybe none. I’ll see what spirit grabs me…..
Closing thoughts and anything else you’d like to share?
Not really, other than having fun is what’s important. I see these people getting caught up on pace, heart race, body fat, weird diets. They create their own prison.
Our ancestors didn’t do that. The stronger of the tribe ran down a deer, killed it and ate it.
The slower runners died.
It’s a little different now, but unless your bank account depends on it, athletics should be fun.
All of us runners want to run our best but there are fun ways to get there. You asked me earlier what other stuff I do. I love to run and I’d like to run at my best AND enjoy life. It’s one in the same. If you like watching your heart rate and calories, then by all means do it. Not my thing.
I do a lot of cross training, ie swimming, yoga, a lot of primal movement stuff, a little Olympic lifting, some kettle bells, some time on the bike and occasional meditation. I do what I feel like doing at the time. Sometimes your mind needs something to make your body happy so it’s not all about busting ass.
I think travel does a lot for the soul and then that in turn enriches your mind and body – Mark Matyazic.
Life is short and precious. Challange yourself and do things that make your heart race and bring a smile to a face. Face your fears head on and you will live a full and memorable life – JessD