Wings For Life | Thunderstruck

What a wild weekend! Here’s the short of it: Everything that I hoped, dreamed, and yearned for through 3-months of training came to fruition on race day: 40+ miles. 1st Place. 1st Page. Boooooom!

First and foremost, THANK YOU to my wife, Julia, for always doing the dirty work in planning and scheduling our weekend escapades. She prepared a Google Doc (snippet below) scheduling our travel and pre-race activities and, highlighting preferred local eateries. Her efforts sequester many of the stressful decisions encountered when traveling, especially during a destination race. We are a team, we gain energy from each other, and we complement each others successes. Muah!

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Snippet.

Secondmost, winning the Wings For Life World Run has been phenomenal! But I know that even if I didn’t win, I would still have received your praises regardless of the outcome, simply because you’ve supported me in my pursuit towards this goal. All of your likes, comments, and messages have been incredibly uplifting, but you’d still like me even if I finished 2nd right? More on that later…

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Your Colorado Rocky Mountains

There’s so much to write about, I scratched down the major points while at the airport traveling back to Denver from LA. Julia had an awesome race day, far exceeding her expectations and feeding off the catcher car race format. She did a sweet job setting up the race vibe and reliving our magical day through her eyes in her post. Also, check out video of her flawless racing stride here. Let’s jump right into the race:

CRUISE

During the first 15 miles, I was finding my pace, reminding myself what I think about while running (cadence, engaged butt, nutrition). I felt a bit erratic to start, searching for my rhythm, still waking up, and loosening up my legs after traveling and sitting in the car much of Saturday morning.

I quite enjoyed the tunnel vision of the dark road following the 4AM starting time. The course was wide and safe and well marked. The first few hours were dark enough that I just zoned out.

I remember passing a few people. I was enthused to see Jeff Ball (4th Place) out on the course. A familiar face and voice was a welcome encounter. I also spied Dylan Bowman (7th Place) running in a small pack — he’s a stud and bounds like a gazelle. I had no desire to lead, I did not want to chat with anyone, I’d come to run the race I thought I was capable of — consistency from start to finish.

UPHILL

The second 15 mile segment was mostly uphill. It was a challenge that I’d stewed over throughout my training and it ended up being a non-factor, far easier than expected. Chalk it up to racing at sea-level, but I was hitting my desired 6:30/mile splits on the uphill miles with ease.

An anxiety that I carried into race day was uncertainty around refilling my water bottle. I carried an 18oz soft bottle of Tailwind accompanied by 8 Honey Stinger gels. The bottle has a small nozzle, so I was in a panic about the logistics of getting an efficient refill at an aid station. To combat my fear and not have to refill my bottle as frequently, I grabbed a cup of water from each aid station to complement my on-board hydration. This worked, though I was reminded of how minuscule the portions are at aid stations. I don’t know how racers rely solely on aid stations for hydration. I gulped an ounce or two of water from the four major aid stations leading up to the final aid at mile 22.

Approaching mile-22 aid, roughly 50 yards out, I began motioning for a water jug and signaled to my bottle, hoping to ready the volunteers for my arrival. Despite my best efforts to enunciate my needs, it wasn’t until I arrived that one worker grabbed a full gallon of water for me. It was still sealed. Ack!! No time!! His hands were full, my hands were gloved, removing that thin plastic seal seemed like it would take an army. I apologized to him and spun away in haste. I didn’t have a plan, time was of the essence. As I bound away, I spied an open gallon of water sitting at the end of the cup table. MERCI ME!! I stopped, topped off my bottle, thanked, apologized, spun again, and saw that I hadn’t lost much time on my fellow competitors. Hi DBo!

Little did I know, that was the last full aid station on the course. I am SO glad I was able to refill my handheld bottle, otherwise I would have bonked and suffered through the remaining 8-miles of empty canyon road.

Following the hydration power-up, I was spirited again, however, it was about this time that I realized it was daylight, and that I had a lot of pavement ahead of me to devour. The mental game began to creep in, as the WFL course markings every kilometer became slightly torturous. I had coasted fairly nonchalantly through mile 25, but now I was innately aware of each mile on my watch and each kilometer in my sight, constant reminders of what lay ahead.

If I’ve learned anything about myself through my training, it is the joy of escaping into a zen-like, in-the-moment mindset and my ability to sink into a consistent pace and effort level. Then my watch beeps, another kilometer marker appears, and I’m distracted from the present and thinking of the future. The future summons math calculations debating pace and time-on-course, re-evaluating my plan, and inevitably rethinking my desires.

That last hill, yes that one at mile 30, which I’d feared would be a 276-foot death march, was anything but. I was psyched! I’d gotten through the bulk of the uphill running with ease. I was trending a few minutes ahead of my desired 50K split. Best of all, I could see my one remaining competitor and his entourage of lights a mile ahead. I whispered:

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

PURSUIT

The third 10+ mile segment was a downhill cruise. I entered uncharted territory for the course map and elevation profile in Santa Clarita. I was hopeful that it’d continue to follow a downhill trend. I was comfortably sandbagging in second place, with an officer from the Santa Clarita Police Department on my back, clearing my way from his cruiser. The officer kindly forewarned me of upcoming turns through his loud speaker, and he obliged as I switched lanes to run the tangents.

From miles 34-39 I could see the leader and the pace vehicle about a half mile ahead. As confident as I was in my pace and effort level, I wasn’t gaining much ground. I kept my head down and focused on the task of kilometer counting. The downhill miles took focus and intention: it’s easy for my stride to get sloppy, allow for heel striking, and get struck by phantom pains or cramps. Negative thoughts crept in: I would be fine with 2nd place. I’m good, I’ve made it far enough. 2nd is admirable. I’ve had a handful of second place finishes lately, maybe that’s just where I belong?

In the midst of mile 39, my trailing police officer friend gave me some advice:

You’re turning left ahead. The catcher car is a mile and a half back. I think you can catch the leader.

That was the push I needed. All this time, I’d known I could catch the leader, I just didn’t know when to strike. Uncertain of my overall pace, I figured I only had another two miles until the Catcher Car was near.

By now, we’d strayed from the main road and we’re zagging through side streets. As quickly as I realized I was finally gaining ground on the leader, he pulled to the roadside and stopped. I was shocked. I kept running. I gave him a “good job” pat on the back as I took control of the lead entourage.

Thinking back to that moment, I sure hope he knew that he was being chased. What a gut wrenching feeling. He led the race for over four hours. He has won WFL the previous two years. I can’t begin to imagine the pyhsical or mental strain he was dealing with when calling it quits — mind you, he was further than any previous winner had made it on this course. Of all the demons floating through the leader’s head at that point in time, the one thing I don’t think he considered was if there were any competitors still on course. I commend him for pacing a competitive race, wish him a speedy recovery, and hope he understood my congratulatory “thank you” as I passed.

Alright, it’s mile 40, I’m ahead of my goal pace and I’m in the lead. I’m in the freaking lead! Now what do I do??!! I took a moment to exhale now that I was in the lead. Fuck yeah!! Woo hoo! I was sitting pretty in first place, the last man standing. I’d reached the last bullet on my To-Do list of goals, but now what?

The lead truck had lights, camera, and audio focused on ME. There’s a motorbike on my right side with a videographer, a support cyclist offering me water and gels to my left. The entire Santa Clarita Police Department is following close behind, anxious to step to duty and block traffic ahead of my next turn or intersection crossing.

That was a lot for me to handle. I had no plan after 40-miles of running. My mind gave out. OK, I’m ready for the Catcher Car! Through the final miles, there was no adrenaline, there was no explosive sprint. I would go out, just as I began, with a “subdued” gait and a managed effort.

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Photo: Redbull.TV Media

EXHALE

I made it 69 kilometers (42.8 miles) in 4:33. The videos of my finish and salute intimately capture the emotional relief and gratitude of the moment. Once the catcher car passed, when I finally broke my stride, I turned around to face the support team of police officers, paramedics, motorbikes, cyclists, photographers, WFL race officials, and Redbull media staff. I was in awe. Never in my life have I felt so honored to receive the time and attention of so many.

In the spirit of the Wings For Life Foundation and the magnitude of this World Run event, I knew that my accomplishment contributed to a goal much larger than my aspirations for the day. To the many delayed motorists on the highway, stuck in traffic behind my low-speed motorcade, I hope you were made aware of the race event and its powerful benefit to spinal cord injury research.

After an interview on the highway with Jill, photos and handshakes with the WFL race directors, exchanging my number with the gracious officer who wanted to send me pictures of my run, I was whisked away in the “Men’s Winner” vehicle back to the starting area. It felt damn good to sit down.

We parked at the starting area red carpet, where Julia and I embraced with excitement, relief, and unadulterated bliss. A handful of volunteers formed a finishers tunnel. I obliged, then promptly high-fived each person who had hung around to welcome me in. Julia was by my side as I was followed by Carlo, a Red Bull photographer, and posed with the catcher car and it’s driver – Redbull rallycar pro – Mitchell deJong. I was interviewed by Red Bull media and Runner’s World, and then desperately needed to find a porta-potty. I’ll save the details on that for an in-person chat.

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You happy? I’m happy!

NEXT

This race format and challenge works for me. Not every runner fits in the Boston Marathon or 100-mile trail running buckets. There are so many distances and environments to explore, and best of all, it’s the journey of discovering your motivation that’ll keep you running.

I am craving more Wings For Life! I think I can do much better next year. 50 Miles? Maybe. I had plenty left in the tank, it was my mental game that surrendered. I’m raising my expectations and beyond excited for what is to come!

Thanks again to everyone who supported Julia and me through our training and especially on race day. Props to the Wings for Life Foundation, Red Bull, the race volunteers, and the course support for executing a phenomenal event. I sincerely hope that everyone makes an effort to participate in the WFL World Run next year.

Media Links:

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/975596068

https://www.redbull.com/us-en/wings-for-life-world-run-2017-race-report

http://www.hometownstation.com/santa-clarita-news/events/wings-for-life-world-run-breaks-records-192455

http://scvtv.com/2017/05/08/thousands-support-spinal-cord-research-during-wings-for-life-world-run-in-scv/

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6 thoughts on “Wings For Life | Thunderstruck

  1. Great job Dan!!! After reading your blog it felt like I was running along beside you 🙂 And thank you Mr. Policeman 😀

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