Finishing Kick

Mile 93, Burning River 100 mile, crewing for Nathan.

There is a moment that comes, maybe more often than we would like, in ultras, where we wonder how in the hell we are going to continue on. It is more than a bonky moment, more than a mental lull, it is a convergence of factors that stop us in our tracks and have us begging for mercy. I remember when I ran Vermont in 2008, I came into Margaritaville and simply had no idea how I was going to keep going. I just felt done. It is a little freaky to feel this way, to feel that no food, no drink, no motivational speech will be able to pull you out of the funk. You keep moving though and somehow, things change. Things get better. For as little explanation as there may be for getting to the point of done, there is even less to explain the sudden ability to pick it up again and hammer it out to the finish. Sometimes we are lucky and never feel this way in a race, but more often than not we are faced with this, as well as many other, challenge in ultras.

For me, the ups and downs, trials and tribulations, problem solving and emotional navigating are what keep me coming back to ultras time and time again. I find it such a (good) challenge to try to find my way among all of the factors that affect the outcome and running of a race. There are far more factors involved in running an ultra than shorter distance races. 

Last week, I was in Ohio, crewing for Nathan as he ran Burning River 100. He had an excellent training block leading up to the race, was fully heated trained as one can be in the balmy SF summer and had a great plan leading into the race. We were surprised by cooler than expected temperatures and he clipped along right on schedule throughout the first 85 miles. He had worked his way up to 3rd place at this point, but was place swapping with 4th and 5th countless times over those later miles.

Kristin, Nathan's sister and crew captain extraordinaire, and I were waiting for Nathan at the car wash aid station at mile 93.3. We waited, encouraged by Nathan arriving earlier than expected at the previous aid station. Jack Pilla came through the aid station in 3rd, running scared that Jay Smithberger and Nathan were going to catch him. Next came Jay several minutes later. Kristin and I became nervous. Nathan had been on his splits all day, taken in good calories, drinking well and all in all, without complaint. We finally saw the bright yellow of his La Sportiva jersey and met him with a smoothie. "I just want this to be over". His face said it all. He was in the weeds. Looking for a way out. A way to just feel better, mentally, physically. We tried to encourage, bolster his spirits. But there is little you can say that actually helps. Just keep going, I said, it will get better.  He was 7 minutes behind Jay at this point.
He left the aid station and continued. Kristin and I hastened to the final crew spot 3 miles later to give him one last bottle and push him out to the finish. We were nervous, worried about him. Hoping he would shake it off. 

We waited. Jay came through. I watched me watch. The minutes slipping away. I saw a red jersey coming towards the aid station. Annette, first woman running a phenomenal race, had caught Nathan but he was close behind her. I got him into the aid station and out again in front of Annette. Nothing seemed better since the car wash and he had 4.6 miles to go. All we could do was hope and think good thoughts. He was now 11 minutes back from Jay (in 4th place). Kristin and I jumped in the car and drove up the hill past him. She rolled down the window and sang him a couple of lines from "My Favorite Things". He smiled. And in that smile, I saw something easily missed. I saw that things were changing.

Yanko family cheering section. Hometown running has its advantages!

We got to the finish line and met up with the whole Yanko family who were waiting to cheer Nathan in. Many of the family had been out all day cheering, it was an impressive show of support. Soon we saw a light coming down the road. Here comes Jay! Someone said. Then a pause. Wait there are two lights! No three!!! We gazed down the straight away along Front Street. Sure enough there was Jay loping along to the finish but chasing him down was Nathan and further back Annette, both closing so quickly it would be easy to forget the 100 miles on their legs. It was amazing, delightful. Jay held off Nathan by 11 seconds. Annette was another 30 seconds back. It was an inspiring run by all of them. And I was so happy for each of them.

Nathan finishing strong

But what really is worth examination to me, is that last 4.6 miles. Nathan and Annette, went from 11 minutes back to 11 (and 40) seconds back. That kind of finishing kick is absolutely fascinating. Where do we get the energy, where do we get the power? In some ways, it is baffling, in some ways it is simple. All I can say is, it never ceases to be amazing. Nathan had a great race and I was truly pleased to see him run such a smart race, battle through a tough spot and finish in such an incredible manner. It is the moment you remember that no matter happens in an ultra, give it a few more miles and things will change.