Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wherever You Go, There You Are - The tBunk Endurance Challenge

The tBunk Endurance Challenge
November 7-9, 2014

Would you rather risk failure attempting something hard or have guaranteed success doing something easy?  That was the question I asked myself when I searched for my next race.  I opted to try something hard, something I had no idea if I could complete.    
Registration opened on April Fool’s Day for the 2014 tBunk Endurance Challenge.  This was the second year for the event.  It consisted of a 200 mile, 150 mile, 100 mile, 50 mile races and a 50K “fun run.”  I decided to risk failure and signed up for the 200 miler.   The race series was named after Tom Bunk, an ultra runner from Wisconsin.  He passed away shortly before the 2014 event, after a courageous battle with cancer.  I never had the chance to meet him, but everyone that I encountered spoke highly of his dedication and generosity towards others and the sport of ultra running.
All the races are in the Kettle Moraine State Forest in Wisconsin.  The race is described as tough but fair.  It is designed to test your mettle, not your patience.  The course for the 200 miler consists of 22 laps on the 9.19 mile blue loop.  This actually totals 202.18 miles, because why do 200 miles when you can do 202.18?  The course is not overly rocky or rooty, but  a million fallen oak leaves easily hid the trip hazards.  The elevation change totals 37,400 feet.  The race started at 7:00 a.m. on Friday and you must be finished by 7:00 p.m. on Sunday.  In the first year of the event there were only two finishers.  Lucky for me, one of them was my friend David and he offered to pace me.  My wonderful husband, Erick was there to crew for me and updated friends and family of my progress on Facebook. 

David and I before the race.

       We arrived at the start/finish area at 6:00 a.m. to drop my gear off and pick up my bib.  I brought a huge rubbermaid tub filled with several changes of shoes, socks, clothes, hats, mittens, hydration packs, water bottles, skin lubricants, and headlamps.  I also had a cooler filled with electrolyte drink mixes, energy gels, and more than a dozen bottles of Ensure.  I held out hope that these lotions and potions will get me to the finish line.   Other runners arrived and I saw that I was not the only one that packed as if they were going to be out there for a week.  
Me and my gear.

  The temperature was 34 degrees, a chilly start.  There were 13 people registered for the 200 miler, only 11 showed up.  The 150 started at the same time and there were seven people registered for that event.   
The small field of runners.
There was such a small group that it seemed more like a training run with friends than a race.  I felt pretty comfortable being in the back of the pack.  I took the first loop in two hours and four minutes.  I had two hours and forty minutes. to complete each loop.  I knew I ran it too fast, yet I was the last person to complete the loop.  
The second loop I tried to pace myself better, I came in about 12 minutes slower.  The next few loops went by uneventfully, unless you include the abdominal cramps and vomiting.  The wind picked to 20 mph and temperature dropped into the high 20’s during the night, accompanied by a cold rain.  At the end of loop 6 (56 miles), David started to pace me. I have bad night vision and it is harder for me to see trail markings in the dark.  I was glad he was there, even when we both missed a course marking and logged an extra mile.  
      I no longer wanted to eat solid food after I vomited a second time.   Two Ensure per loop seemed to keep up my calorie intake. My feet started hurting and I stopped for a shoe and sock change.  It felt as if each loop during the night I was developing a new problem.
      The 100 mile and 50 mile runners started their race at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday, we started to see them on the course about 15 minutes later.  They were running on fresh legs and flew by us like we were standing still.   They passed and said words of encouragement.  Ultra runners rarely pass without saying something.  You don’t get that in shorter races.  There is a sense of camaraderie.  Possibly it is because most of us are competing with ourselves or the clock and not each other. 
Forcing down a PB&J.
We finished loop 9, 82.81 miles at 8:18 a.m..  It was 43 degrees and the wind picked up to 30 mph.  I kept forcing in the food that I did’t want to eat.  My breaks between loops became longer.  I wanted to go faster but my legs just wouldn’t cooperate.  I know as a runner the furthest distance is not the length of your race, it is the distance from your head to your feet.  This is especially true when there is a short circuit someplace in between. Loop 10 was completed at 11:53AM, 91.9 miles.  I was pretty happy to be running at all at this point.  Typically, at a 100 miler I walk almost everything after the 100K mark.   I was not going fast, but I was still going.  
At 4:27 p.m. I hit a new level.  101.09 miles, further than I had ever run before.  I took a 15 minute nap, which turned out to be a big mistake.  After being warm and comfortable laying in a cot, I did not want to get back up or go back out in the cold. I hit loop 12, 110 miles at 7:58 p.m., each loop was taking longer than the last.   The temperature continued to drop into the low 20’s.  I had to stop and change into warmer clothes for the night.  It was more time down the drain, but to keep going I had to stay warm.
Attempting to nap.
Going up the hills became increasingly difficult, I developed a pain in my hip flexor.  A fellow runner offered some pain medication.   It helped for awhile.   At dusk the first of my hallucinations started.  I asked David, “When did they put that building there?”  He looked at me strangely and I knew it was my mind playing tricks on me.  What I saw was a large screened in building with a person inside on a ladder, behind the building was a huge cell tower.  He told me the building was not there and that it was a tree, not a cell tower.  I stared at him in disbelief.  I approached it slowly while it disappeared and turned into a tree, just like he said.  
Stalling, not wanting to go back out.
Throughout the night I apologized to David because I was walking so much.  I felt that I was letting him down. He reminded me that I was at a point that was further than I had ever gone before.  
My hip flexor took a turn for the worse during the night.  I looked more like a prisoner dragging a ball and chain than a runner.    Each time I approached a hill I was forced to physically pick up my left leg to make any progress up the incline.  We were both exhausted mentally and physically during this loop.  To add insult to injury, it started snowing.  
We came into the aid station after loop 14.  I knew there was no chance of making the cutoff for the 150 or the 200 at this point.  I decided that 128.66 miles would be the end of my race.  I knew in my heart I could have pushed myself on to the 150 distance, but it would not have been within the cutoff.  No buckle, no official finish, but I would also likely have a lasting injury.  My journey ended 1 day 21 hours and 7 minutes after it began.  I knew David wished he had brought me to the 200, but I told him I would have no regrets about this D.N.F. (Did Not Finish)  How can you regret the furthest you have ever pushed yourself?   
My selfless Pacer (David) and Sherpa (Erick)
After a shower, a few hours of sleep and some food, I felt way better than I should.  We drove to the finish line to watch the last two people on the course finish their quest.  In total, there were three official finishers in the 200 miler.  One runner dropped down to the 150 mile race and completed it.  Another person “unofficially” finished the 150 miler as he wasn’t within the 48 hour cutoff time.  Craig, the race directer opted to list the mileage results for each person, even if they didn’t make a cutoff.  He said he’d rather give everyone credit for the mileage they logged, rather than listing the big letters that no runner wants to see, D.N.F.   

Even though technically my race ended with a D.N.F., I felt as if Craig gave me a pat on the back by acknowledging what I accomplished.   I’ve often heard the saying, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”   I see now that my journey was the real destination.