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Adventures on the Fringe: Infinitus 888k Pace Report

 

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***note: I have really struggled with how to properly explain the vastness, insanity, stubbornness, heroics, and borderline stupidity of this race.  Hopefully I did it justice. It’s a long post, but then, it was a long race.***

Running, for all its popularity in the last decade, is still a niche activity.  Marathon running, though it has seen a recent boom, is a side niche of that niche.  Then there is ultra running – something which is seeing its own renaissance (and getting popular enough to produce some impressive hand-wringing about ‘the way things used to be’ *fart noise*). Still, outside certain circles, the world of ultras remains pretty damn counterculture (http://www.outsideonline.com/1977961/reality-check-ultrarunning-not-mainstream). 

Buried in this world, this side niche of a side niche, you have other activities. Among the adventure races, the FKT attempts, and multi-day events, there are corners of athletes who see no point in signing up for a race that they know they can finish.  There are activities for people who want to push themselves to their very breaking points, and then past.  Events designed to tear you into tiny pieces, if only to see if you can put yourself back together again in time to make it across the line. 

When my friend Jordan (a relay team member who I paced at Fat Dog 120 last year: http://www.myfitnesspal.com/blog/ThickMcRunFast/view/fat-dog-120-pace-report-689573) said she was training for an 888k race, I thought it was a typo.  Who would do that? Who could even do that?  That’s clearly not a real thing.  But when we met for a relay in February, she confirmed that it was true.  She was training for Infinitus.  An event put on by the aptly name “Endurance Society” in Vermont.  It would be a 10 day race, a loop course that you would have to complete 888k (550m) on, and not much else was known about it at the time. She asked me to pace.  My response? “This is crazy.  I am so in.”  I didn’t even have to think about it.  OF COURSE I was in.  I had to see what this was about. My mind spun just thinking about the logistics of such a thing.  I had to know what would happen.  Would anyone else sign up for this? (10 people would).  Would anyone make it? (Yes - a lone soul). Would there be crying? (So much crying). What would the nutrition look like? (I would force feed my friend melted butter). What would this do to your feet? (Pretty sure that every person who participated is now a licensed foot surgeon an’ shit). 

As we got closer, more details emerged.  It would be a figure 8 course (Infinitus…the 8 theme will be repeated), one ‘top’ loop of about 10 miles, which included one hard climb and 1600 ft of total gain; and a ‘bottom’ lollipop loop of 16 miles.  The stick of the lollipop was a 3 mile bog that connected to a 10 mile loop around a lake. Then you would have to go back through the bog.  The lake loop included 4-5 miles of steady climbing. The whole lower loop had about 2400ft of gain.  There was a ski lodge in the middle that housed the sleeping quarters (a loft that became a beloved, if smelly nest), all our gear, a microwave, and the food tables.  Crews could stay at the lodge, or take some loops with the runner. This figure 8 course and the lodge would become my entire world for the week. Nothing else existed.

 Runners had 10 days to cover 21 full figure 8s.  Anything less than that would be considered “DNF”.  A week into the 888k, other races would start on the same loops. There were 72 and 48 hour versions (as many laps as you could run in that time, with buckles for those who reached 100 miles), as well as an 88 and 8k on the last day.  But, for that first week, the 10 intrepid souls of the 888k would be out there alone, with only those crazy enough to crew this Quixotian quest for company.  They would go through all kinds of weather. Nothing would stop this train.  They had to stay on pace to have a chance.  Outwardly, they would not have to move fast.  2 full loops (52+ miles) per day, plus two days with an extra half loop.  If you moved around a 3mph pace, you could do that easily, have some time to eat and perform foot care, and even have a few hours a night to sleep.  But if problems arose….well. Crisis management is a skill you better have. 

I arrived on day 5 of Infinitus.  I had been working in France, and flew to LA for two days to pack all my outdoor gear up, only to haul it all to Vermont.  A redeye saw me to Burlington, where I was greeted by Doug Salvensen, father another runner, Greg  (Greg was also on the Fat Dog Adventure last year- in fact, Greg has run one 100 a month for the last year).  I was introduced to the quaint charm and distinct smell of the Blue Berry Hill Ski Lodge, but there was no time to relax. I got on my running gear and packed up with water and food, because Jordan was coming off the top loop and would need help with the bottom.  By the time I arrived, the runners had already nicknamed the top “happy” and the bottom “sad”.  Two runners had already dropped out due to injury, and only 3 people were poised to make it the entire distance (Greg, Jordan, and a girl named Jess who had also run Fat Dog, though our crews didn’t know each other). 


our home and nest

A shifting crew of friends would help Jordan out, and right now her pals Sarah and Lucas were in charge of her. They gave me the update and rundown:  The first day had been great, then came a 20-degree night, complete with hail. The runners woke up to snow on the ground.  Now the temperatures were perfect, but would be shortly climbing into the 80s and 90s, with thunderstorms forecast.  On top of this, Jordan was having problems. She had stopped wanting to eat and was calorie deficient.  Later we would find out the problem: there had been a calorie miscalculation early. For some reason, she thought her Perpetuem had 250 calories per scoop, when it only has 100. She thought she was taking in 500 calories per bottle, but only getting 200. Some loops she would only get 50 calories.  The guys running this race were getting daily burns between 9 and 11 THOUSAND calories.  Even though the burn is less for women, doing this on her level of intake was impossible.  She was bonking. Hard.  Her mom had been with her the first few days, and instead of forcing her to eat, she did a very mom thing and let her tired daughter say no.  Now I was here to be mean and force food down her throat. 

I didn’t even have enough time to process. A minute, later, she was coming into the ski lodge and we jumped into action.  Sarah put a bowl of food under her nose, and I got to work massaging her quads, which had been rendered dead a few days ago due to lack of calories.  She whimpered: “I know I don’t sound happy to see you, but I am so happy to see you”.  A friend to share the long road with can be the best pick-me-up a person could ask for.  We got her pack loaded up and some food in her, and it was time for me to pace. 

And I will be honest: I didn’t even know if I could successfully pace this event. I had planned on putting between 150-200 miles on my legs for the 5 days I would be there.  That is significantly more miles than I have ever done in a week.  I would have to manage her race when she lost the ability to think. I would also have to manage myself, because I am useless to her if I can’t get up and run.  I can’t help her out of a sadness hole if I am in my own pain cave (and the road ahead was littered with both).  And, as always, I had to be the Good Attitude Mouse.  Pacing, after all, is not about you. It is about the runner. If you are in pain, bitch to the rest of the crew, but not to the runner. They are in more pain, and they certainly don’t need your negativity.

So, reservations, aside, I headed out for our first ‘sad’ loop. 

Which was not sad at all. In the afternoon light, it was beautiful. The bog was boggy, and my feet were instantly soaked, but the climbs easy, the views spectacular, and the forest peaceful.  The RDs, Jack and Andy, had put sporadic decorations to make you laugh, or freak you out (depending on your tastes). Jordan seemed in better spirits as we chattered away the 5-hour trek.  I learned about the other runners.  There were Greg and Jess, getting things done.  John, the hilariously loud-mouthed Texan. Rebecca, the woman who enjoyed Death Races, walking along determinedly with ferns in her hair to keep the mosquitoes out of her hat.  Joel, who had just attempted a “Beer 100m” (run a mile, drink a beer, repeat x100. Yes, that’s a real thing), and was helping everyone with foot care.  Will, who was trying for 200 miles in his third trail race ever.  Mark, who had just run 200 miles a few weeks prior. They are inspiring and amazing people, all.  It would be my honor to get to know them and their crews over the course of the week.

 Bog life. Miles and miles of mud

We strategized out there. We made a plan to get her to eat (melted butter all the things!).  We talked about timing. Her feet hurt. She was sure she had some blisters under the tough calluses on her forefoot.  I was twitchy and wanted to run, but knew I had to reign it in for the long haul. 

 not creepy at all: The solar powered baby lights of the upper loop

We powered through that loop, and Sarah had a meal waiting for us back at the lodge.  The sun was going to set soon, so I would accompany her on the top loop as well. Then we would sleep for a few hours, and get before sunrise to tackle the bottom loop. This way we would maximize the daylight on the bottom loop. The upper one was much easier, psychologically.   The plan was for her to make 2 full figure 8s per day.  If things held up, she really only wanted me to run the bottom loops with her, to the tune of about 32 miles per day. Her boyfriend, Ben, was showing up in a day and even though he was coming off of a 48 hour adventure race, he could handle one 10 mile loop per day, and she could do the other 10 in daylight by herself.  What a great plan! How easy!  This was going to be cake.

a 'not sad' view from the 'sad' loop

That cakey feeling lasted until about 2 miles into the top loop, when we hit the one mile, 1000ft climb up Mt. Romance.  This was not unexpected. There are a million highs and lows in your normal ultra, so I was prepared to talk her out of some dark times. And to me, on fresh legs, in the sunset, it did not feel bad at all.  To Jordan, it was hell.  She had been putting up a brave face about how much her feet hurt.  It dissolved when the sun went down.  We made it to the top (signified by a clown hanging upside down from a tree, because Andy and Jack are sociopaths). 

 

Soon the whimpering started. A few more miles, and she started half crying and asking me if she was tough enough to do this.  I had to dip into my bag of pacing tricks to get her out of her sadness hole.  Music to the rescue!  I cued up my iphone and became her hype man. I was playing anything I could think of to keep her mind off of her feet.  There was something hilarious and ridiculous about running through a deserted forest at night, blasting “Get Low” and repeating inspirational slogans.  A punk cover of “Country Roads” got her spirits up, as it turned out that was the alma mater of her childhood summer camp. So we sang that.  The fleeting good time didn’t last. She started apologizing for this not being ‘fun’ (which I actually laughed out loud at – this was going to be many things, but I don’t know if ‘fun’ was something I was expecting).  I told her singing her camp song was fun for me.  Finally, we hit upon The Refreshments “Banditos” (everybody knows that the world is full of stupid people…).  That did it. She was up and signing and we were back to laughing.  Then we saw the set of 8 Barbie torsos in jars – which were the decorations that signaled the end of the loop (Andy and Jack are sick), and were happy to be home. 

We put her feet up and tried to drain the blisters under her callus.  Trouble was, we couldn’t find any.  Not knowing what to do, we fashioned a donut (a pad with a hole cut in the middle…you put it around a blister to relieve the pressure on the affected spot), and got her into bed.  Before she went to sleep, Sarah and I concocted a mixture of soup, melted butter, and the oil poured off a jar of natural peanut butter that seemed to help her. She drank two of those, and we borrowed more butter to put in her oatmeal the next morning. Sara was going to get up at 330am to get everything ready, and we would be off at 430am to do the bottom loop.  I had formed my own blister after running in wet feet, but it was only a friction blister, high on my left heel. So I drained it, cleaned it, put on some NuSkin (ow ow OW OW), and bandaged it. It would give me no trouble, though I took care to keep it clean and dry.

Jordan had her buttered oats and an Ensure for breakfast.  I ate some pancakes, and we were off. The extra calories had her feeling better, but her feet were still not happy. We traversed the bog, and Sarah met us at the top (there was a place she could drive to). Jordan cursed and tore off the donut device. We re-taped and changed shoes, and everything was better.

Sunrise through the trees of the bottom loop

Now, a series of mistakes were made. We did not know at the time how these things would cascade into insurmountable disaster. 

1.     Jordan was having forefoot trouble (the uneven terrain was hard on forefoot strikers). She thought it was blisters under a tough callus.

2.     In order to take pressure off the forefoot, she started landing on her heels in her zero drop shoes.

3.     Her Achilles started hurting, but it was ignored, because it was the least of all the hurts.      

What we really needed was a pair of traditional, 12mm drop running shoes that would let her land on her heel more without changing her stride as much.  But, as we are all trend monkeys, no one had a shoe with a drop over 4mm.  This turned out to be a fatal flaw, although we did not know it yet. 

more 'decorations'

The loops started blending into each other, until we could no longer ignore her foot pain. She needed to get that pressure off.  So, we laid her on the ground, gave her a pillow to bite and my hand to squeeze.  Joel grabbed his needle and blister kit. He had to get under her callus to drain the blister. This was going to be hell. 

An hour of needles and screaming later –there was no blister.  Nothing to drain.  It turns out she had bruised her forefoot, and then jabbed needles into it.  There was nothing that could be done for a forefoot bruise, except try to pad the hell out of it.  So we put her in her Altra Olympus (zero drop – MISTAKE!), and shoved some socks into the arch to make her land on her heels (MISTAKE MISTAKE).  It alleviated the pain and she was back to feeling good.  She took the night off to give her feet a break.  This was great for me, because I am also a forefoot striker, and my feet were beginning to throb as well. After one soggy loop, I had come in, peeled off my socks, and had my big toe callus peel off with them.  GAH. I was tired and hungry myself.  There was one hot meal a day provided by the Infinitus crew.  I came in and motored through an entire plate of noodles before I noticed that there were giant chunks of chicken in it (I have been a vegetarian for over 15 years). As a testament to just how hungry I was…I shrugged and got another plate. 

Added bonus to the night off – it allowed Jordan to drain.  I’m not kidding. Her calorie imbalance had led to a 12lb weight gain over the first week.  She was retaining ALL the fluid.  Eating, drinking water (and butter), and rest led to a lot of peeing, and she was down 6lbs of those pounds by the morning. 

Ben was there by that time, and he took her on the lower loop in the morning. I thought I would do the rest of the day with her…I just needed a few extra hours to get my feet together.  Well, that’s when the thunderstorm hit.  One of Jordan’s deepest fears is lightening. This race was going to make sure she faced that fear.  While I waited nervously in the lodge (which lost power), Jordan and Ben were forced through some insane times.  She was already depressed because she thought her race was gone (she stopped to cry on many a rock). Then she made it back to the bog, and the skies opened up.  She screamed and cried and shook in terror, but kept putting one foot in front of the other. By the time she made it back, she was loopily signing.  I could only offer her lukewarm coffee (still no power), but she was grateful for it.  The rest of the day she took off. We needed to hit the full reset button.  Her feet were in so much pain.  She needed a break. 

Still, the next day, we went out and did another figure 8, which was back to being awesome. We were having so much fun again, singing and tromping through the woods. We did the time calculations, and she could still make the cut off, but it was going to take everything she had, and we could not have another setback.  We had infinite hope. She stopped every now and then to stretch her Achilles, but hey, that wasn’t anything to worry about (IT WAS VERY MUCH SOMETHING TO WORRY ABOUT). We were experiencing the meat of what Infinitus had to throw at us.  We had worked up a joke that we were in The Hunger Games.  Just when you thought you were safe, Andy would release some new hell. He was out there letting crates of deet-tolerant mosquitoes loose. He was magically making the loops longer (our Garmins agreed), and somehow tilting everything so it was uphill both ways.  He put bobcats and bears in our path. He cued the lightening.  One loop, we came across a tub of Trail Toes (foot lubricant of the gods), and lapsed into hysterical laughter because we had sponsors! Our thanks to the people of District 11! 

I let Jordan do the next top loop alone, because she was in great spirits, it was light out, and I was still managing my own foot bruising. 

Three hours later, she came back to the lodge. I gave a whoop and asked her how she felt. 

She burst into tears and blood started pouring out of her nose. 

Whelp.

Whelp.

We got her head back and took her shoes off. The 72 and 48 hour racers that had gathered for registration looked on in fear. What had happened out there?

Turns out her Achilles totally blew up at the top of Mt. Romance. She had hiked up, feeling great, putting in one of her best times ever.  Then she just couldn’t move.  She basically had to crawl back to the lodge. It was pretty clear that her race was over, just short of 400 miles, but she was still in bargaining mode. If someone could just stabilize her heel! We could tape it! She could still walk until the end! There were still 3 days left!  DAMNIT SHE COULD DO IT. 

Ben went into Voice-Of-Reason mode.  Was another loop worth a year of rehab to her?  What if she snapper her Achilles entirely?  What would it take?  There was no warning for that. If it was going to go, it would just go.  She agreed to take a day off and see.

So, with no pacing to do for her, I started making loops with other people.  Rebecca and Shirley (who was in the 48 hour race). Jess’s pacer and I did a backwards loop and brought calories to those who needed it one particularly hot day.  We also took pictures of the racers out there.  Jess was having her own foot hell, and also had to drop out.  It was similar to Jordan’s, just much more far gone. Her feet were covered in blisters. Every loop required an hour of draining and care that rivaled Jordan’s own scream-fest.  She was a zombie, being led around by her pacers and asleep on her feet. She put herself on antibiotics to counter the growing infection.  Her mom started having to leave the room during foot care.  It got to be hard to watch. She was shaking and crying while her crew was packing her up to go back out there. It made me uncomfortable. Still, her race, her choice.  She kept going until it was clear that she would do herself irreparable harm.  We can debate whether or not this was toughness or stupidity. It was probably both.  But she had a goal, and she gave it her all.  It was something to see. At times worrying, at times inspiring.  It gave my brain a lot to chew on.  How can a person just keep. on. going. like that?  What strength must that take?  I will be thinking about that for a while. 

Jordan, for her part, still refused to believe it was over.  But, in her down time, she decided to learn more about foot care, and help the newer racers who showed up.  We all resolved to buy and memorize the book “Fixing Your Feet” by John Vonhof. (http://www.amazon.com/Fixing-Your-Feet-Prevention-Treatments/dp/0899976387).  It was invaluable, and Joel even emailed the author questions about Jess’s foot treatment while it was ongoing. He responded! 

The rest of the race was fun for me. Jordan never did get back out there, but she was energized. This experience changed her life. A lifelong perfectionist, she said that ‘this failure meant more than any previous success’.  She is determined to do it next year. I will absolutely be back to pace. 

OH! And Greg actually finished! He even made it 29 hours early!  Ben and Joel accompanied him on his last loop. His mom had the three of them light sparklers at the start. We drove to a few places and saw them along the way. Once, we went to the top of the bog and brought beers. We sat in the dark forest and talked about life while waiting to encourage Greg on his impossible victory. It was nice.  We woke up at 2am and saw him in.  God knows Andy is going to make this harder next year. He never expected anyone to make it, let alone over a day early.  Hunger Games!

 

Putting it into perspective: A visual representation of how far Greg could have run from his house in Boulder, had he not been running in circles in Vermont

Other thoughts:

-I didn’t touch on it, but the 48 hour race deserved its own report.  The people who showed up were not the ultra runners I am used to. It was the Spartan Death Race/Crossfit crowd.  There was a distinct inverse relationship between the length of race and amount of crying of its participants.  I don’t mean this to say that these people were pussies - far from it.  They just were not ultra runners (for the most part - there were some spindly people out there too J). They were people looking to challenge themselves. They just wanted to see how far they could make it.  Would they outlast traditional ultra runners? No, of course not. But that’s not the point.  I would be crying just as hard in a Death Race. The point was them testing limits.  Again, we can debate the tough vs. stupid side of this, but I saw so much courage out there, that it would be difficult to get snobby about it. 

-Allow me to get snobby for a second anyway:  Dudes, running is hard. Train or something.  Just because you can do a million burpees, doesn’t mean you can run 100 miles.  This is not directed at everyone, or even most of them- just the loud ones.  As in any population and sport, the loudest, most dude-broiest, were the first ones to crumble.  Jordan, with her new outlook on life, felt pity and hoped they learned their lesson and would come around. I’m not as good of a person and had a laugh at watching some bravado get taken down a notch.  Then I got them a burger and a coke.  Its all good. 

-I paced 140ish miles. I kept loose track, but my Garmin details are off. Sometimes it died. Sometimes I grabbed someone else’s Fenix for a loop (there were a few of them around and it was hard to keep everyone’s straight).  It was the most I had ever run. Andy gave me a tshirt and a medal for it, which made me supremely happy.

-I learned that you need to brush your teeth four times a day in things like this, or else you will get mouth sores from all the sugar. 

-My Brooks Pure Grit 3s and Altra Olympus 1.5s were great in this…but I really needed some traditional shoes too.  I would get a pair of Sketchers Go Pros or something next time around.

-I learned to accept new levels of dirt.  The showers weren’t constructed at the ski lodge. We only had a hose next to the barn and rain. So I ran an ultra every day and showered all of once.  The rest of the time it was wet wipes.  I’m still surprised I didn’t lose my shit entirely because of this.

- I still find the whole experience difficult to wrap my mind around.  I don’t know if I am an entirely different person on the other side, but I cannot say that this didn’t change me.  I have this vague sense now that limits are meaningless and self-constructed.  I am only bound by what I am willing to do, and what I am not willing to do. 

-Anyone could do this.  It does not take an elite athlete. It just takes desire.  If you are thinking about signing up to do something you feel is impossible – just go for it.  You will absolutely surprise yourself.  You can do it. I believe in you. 

 

The 8 happy chickens of the lower loop believe in you too!

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