Monday, July 16, 2012

Reflections on Pacing and the Making and Unmaking of the World: Millwood and Hardrock 2012.

It's easy to break endurance training down into its essential features: the laboratory idolatry of VO2 max, lactate threshold, and neuromuscular efficiency.  A strata lower, the basic biochemistry of aerobic metabolism and energy utilization- wrinkled and evolutionarily ancient mitochondria, the Krebs cycle, glycogen storage and mobilization.   Training is largely about pushing and pulling on these variables in controlled fashion, the outcome being faster running with less effort, time differentials in performance, and- if all goes well- improved race performance.

But as I sat on the cold ground next to a severely depleted and continuously vomiting Jared Campbell in the middle of the night at over 13,000 feet as we ascended Handies peak during the Hardrock 100 it was clear that none of these things mattered.  Or, rather, those variables became ineluctably secondary to something much more primal.  As he would then continue to do for the next 12 hours (to impressively finish in under 30 hours in 13th place), Jared pulled himself back up from the fetal position and the pool of vomit he had been lying in with a low, almost inhuman moan and stumbled forward in a ketone body-fueled stupor, eyes half-lidded and glassy, his breath coming in short, shallow gasps.  I was reminded of Hal, the conscious supercomputer from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey whose speech, cognition, and overall functioning slowed to a tragically self-aware crawl as his processing units were removed one by one.  

Faced with this situation I did what any good pacer would do: tried to make some lame jokes, force fed him 10-30 kcal of simple carbohydrate at a time on 7 minute intervals (when he let me), offered some words of encouragement, and took video of him while he vomited for posterity.  

But let me backtrack a bit.

In the past two weeks I've been lucky enough to be a part of two epic adventures by two of the toughest dudes I know.  First, I ran and hiked about 25 miles of Erik Storheim's pioneering completion of the difficult Millwood 100.  This course- a rugged and circuitous mountain route designed by Jared Campbell- involves Millcreek, Big Cottonwood, and Little Cottonwood Canyons in the Wasatch and boasts approx. 45,000 feet of vertical climbing over 104 miles.    Erik became the first person to finish it in one push, notching an impressive 38:56 despite getting lost for a bit.  See his writeup here.

Then this past week I travelled to Silverton, Colorado to crew and pace Jared for his 8th outing in the Hardrock 100.  The pre-race environment was a scene.  The who's-who of ultrarunning were out and about with their skinny legs, UV damaged skin, product endorsement, and resting heart rates in the 30s.    There was talk.  There was prognostication.  The blogging and media airwaves were clogged and heady: "Dakota is the clear pre-race favorite but Hal has been sleeping in an altitude tent....  Can't ever underestimate the Speedgoat... If Diana so much as stops to take a gel she'll get eaten alive by a fast closing Darcy..."  It was all a bit overwhelming and I wasn't even running the damn race.  Or, as seems to be the case: "race."

I made my way to and fro, hung out with some of the Salt Lake City crew present (thanks to David Hayes and Suzanne Lewis for putting me up), did some fantastic running, ate Nutella sandwiches, drank Montanya rum, read David Foster Wallace, and generally just took in the scene with a distance of healthy skepticism.   

I watched other crews and pacers with their runners. Interestingly they seemed to be discussing a lot of details: splits, strategies, gels, gu's, chomps, bars, shoes, hydration, hats, Garmin battery life, maps, motivation, drop bags, rain gear, speed, distance, time.  Concerned at my apparent relative lack of preparation, I approached Jared that night as he sipped his second beer.  "Let's just have a good adventure in the mountains together" was his only directive.  And we had a race plan.

Despite the differing circumstances of these two endeavors, once things get rolling it seems the basic shape is the same, the experience one of radical internality: the higher-level features of your self and personhood slowly whittled away by mountains, distance, and time leaving a husk of pure intention, the simple goal to keep moving forward at all costs.  I've experienced this before first-person but it was interesting to watch it up-close.  I say up-close but yet the distance here is vast: the interiority of this state is complete and untouchable.  Your pain is whole, aching, raw and above all it is yours alone.  As Elaine Scarry observed in her brilliant work The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World: "To have pain is to have certainty, to hear about pain is to have doubt."  I hiked alongside Jared as the sun rose at mile 80 or so, now 24 hours into the race: we shared the same rocky trail, the same unique spot and time on the earth, but we were on different planets.  

And yet despite this gaping distance there is an intimacy in being invited to be here, in this strange proximity to another's suffering and vulnerability.  You can't touch the core but you can mitigate some of the surface details.  Crackers seemed to help.  

A big thanks to both these impressive dudes for letting me be a part of some amazing athletic feats while remaining such solid, humble, and kind human beings.  

Erik at Elbow Fork

Ibid, with Pete Stoughton and Matt Hart

Making our way up trail.

Me, Erik, and Matt on Gobblers Knob.  Yup, short shorts.

Erik descending off Gobblers

Erik and Matt at Upper Millcreek refueling.

Required Reading for ultrarunners.

David Hayes prior to a successful Hardrock finish.

Pre-race hydration.

Jared and Mindy, just prior to the start.

Christian Johnson, at the start.

Early morning.

Ascending out of Maggies.

Descent into Cunninghams.

David Hayes and Suzanne Lewis, the day after...


  1. Beautiful words Ben! There is something so reflective and revealing about ourselves and what drives us to run that is exposed and unearthed when we pace others in their adventures. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great post, Ben. What an amazing adventure. I'm currently reading John Annerino's fantastic "Running Wild" about his epic end-to-end solo run through the Grand Canyon -- sounds like you & Jared tapped into something similarly sublime and atavistic. Already counting the days to the 2013 Hardrock lottery...

  3. Ben-

    Thought provoking words as always. Thanks again for being part of the adventure. It's all the pieces put together that make the experience!!

  4. Ben-thanks for being a big part of the hardrock adventure and helping J get to the finish. Excellent write-up. I think in the not too distant future we will be helping YOU out at Hardrock. Can't wait!