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On My First 100-Miler by Wookie Kim

On December 17 and 18, I did the unthinkable: I ran 100 miles. After 28 hours, 12 minutes, and 14 seconds, I crossed the finish line of the inaugural Devil Dog Ultras 100-mile race, held in northern Virginia's Prince William Forest Park.

When I crossed the finish line, I'd been running for so damn long that I had in fact seen two sunrises. A week later, I'm still trying to wrap my ahead around that thought. When else will I be able to measure the length of an event I've participated in using "sunrises" as a unit?

There's a lot that happened during those two sunrises. But I've written more than enough standard race reports in my life, and I have no desire to write another chronological minute-by-minute narrative of the ups and downs of a race (plus, if I were to truly do that, this race report would be more a race book). Instead, here is my stream-of-consciousness sketch of what it's like to run a 100-miler.

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Getting to the starting line is often the scariest part of a race. Until the gun goes off and you're actually thrown into the fray, you are burdened by the expectations, the endless speculation, the knots in your stomach (and in your brain). This race was no different. As my first 100-miler, the Devil Dog caused even more angst than the other ultramarathons I've done. I'd also worked hellish hours for the 3-week period leading up to race day, so was physically and psychologically worn down. I'm thankful that none of this psyched me out from showing up to the start line. That was truly half the battle.

The start line experience itself was also a tad scary. Throughout the night and into the morning, freezing rain had been coming down. The roads were covered with a sheet of centimeter-thick ice (nearby, that ice had caused a tragic explosion and 55-car pile-up). In the parking lot outside the hotel, my race almost ended before it had even begun when I slipped and slided, in my half-awake state, on my way to the car. And at 6 a.m., when the gun went off in the darkness, this is what we began running into:

 6:05 a.m. -- it was cold and wet and dark. Practically everything you don't want as you begin a 24-hour race.

6:05 a.m. -- it was cold and wet and dark. Practically everything you don't want as you begin a 24-hour race.

For one and a half solid laps (of 20 miles)--until the rain finally ceased, the sun came out, and the ambient temperature rose enough to begin the thawing process--I ran on trails that might otherwise have been mistaken for a forested luge course. One of my run-buddies that first lap stated it best: "I play hockey. I've been skating all my life. But this? This is f**king ridiculous." He slipped and fell on his butt as he said that (and he slipped and fell another half dozen times while I was running with him).

 At least this bridge had handrails. 

At least this bridge had handrails. 

In retrospect, I will always wonder: did the freezing rain actually improve my performance? After all, I ran a freakishly slow first lap, not because I'd planned to, but because I had no choice (assuming, that is, I did not want to break my tailbone by slipping and falling on the ice). Had the ice not forced me at times literally onto my hands and knees (those damn handrail-less footbridges!), I probably would have gone out slightly harder--not so hard that I'd have completely burnt out, but hard enough that I probably would have suffered the consequences later. All I can do is speculate, though. In ultrarunning, it's impossible to separate cause from effect. A million causes get jumbled up with a million effects. All one can do is theorize about the impact that action X, taken 8 hours earlier, had on action Y, done 8 hours later.

 Seeking solace on patches of fallen leaves--the least slippery portions of the trail.

Seeking solace on patches of fallen leaves--the least slippery portions of the trail.

The 100-mile experience is untethered from traditional conceptions of time. I wore my watch during the race (or at least until it ran out of batteries, somewhere around the 100K mark), but I practically never looked at the actual time of day. Instead of units of time, I measured my race in other units: calories consumed (or, imagined calories consumed), number of aid stations reached, number of loops left, the self-assessed 1-10 "score of how I'm feeling" I gave myself on a periodic basis. Though I tried to track time, I ultimately could not process what was happening along that dimension.

 At mile 40, starting my 3rd loop with Phil, my first pacer--I have absolutely no idea what time of day this was.

At mile 40, starting my 3rd loop with Phil, my first pacer--I have absolutely no idea what time of day this was.

The heart is another guide. The heart keeps us alive (what are we without our hearts?); it kept me alive. And monitoring my heart is what kept me on my feet for almost 28 and a half hours. For a race of this distance and duration, I couldn't let myself run simply "by feel" because it is genuinely hard to distinguish when one is exerting 133 beats per minute of effort from when one is exerting 139 beats per minute of effort. Those marginal 6 beats per minute can make all the difference--especially when extended over a 24-hour period. So every 30 seconds or so, I looked down at the screen of my Garmin 910XT and read my heartrate and adjusted my pace accordingly. My race target was 135 bpm--I had predicted I could sustain this heart rate for the duration of the race. And for the first 12 hours of the race, that's exactly what I did:

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But even that was unsustainable. As the mind and body fatigued, so too did the ability to sustain a higher heart rate. My body was going into hibernation of sorts--an attempt to conserve what little precious energy it had left. The last ten hours of my race, I averaged 112 bpm, which is about the level of exertion that is typical for a brisk walk (I suppose that's exactly what I was actually doing). All I could do was do my best to keep moving forward, one footstep at a time. Whenever I took a break, the longer I stood still, the harder it was to keep going. But with 5 miles to go, I knew I had nothing to lose. I was almost home. It was time to go. I pushed and I pushed, and I hit 150 bpm as I broke the tape at the finish line.

 At the finish with Race Director, Toni Aurilio, and my prized belt buckle.

At the finish with Race Director, Toni Aurilio, and my prized belt buckle.

Wasn't this a metaphor for life? We come charging out of the gates, energized with youthful vigor, tackling everything that life puts in our path, and then, as the decades pass, that vitality peters away, slowly but surely. And in that last moment before "the end," we try to relive the glory of our youth, do all of the things we previously chalked off as impossible, and leave absolutely everything behind so that we can leave this world thinking, "I have no regrets." And then we cross that metaphorical finish line--and go kaput. The progression of my heart rate is the progression of life.

 Early in the race, when I was still charging out of the gates.

Early in the race, when I was still charging out of the gates.

There are 2 moments that stand out as symbols of just how close to the edge I was.

The first occurred somewhere around mile 66.6 (exactly 2/3 of the way through my odyssey, and coinciding with what we may as well call the ultrarunner's devil's number). As I was leaving Camp Gunny, I was overcome by a wave of chills. Why I experienced this wave is unknown to me, especially because it wasn't even that cold. The only conclusion, of course, is that the devil had possessed me. It was causing my teeth to chatter uncontrollably, and the styrofoam cup holding my lukewarm coffee to gyrate and overflow on all sides. I felt doomed at this point. There was no way that I could carry my shaking, shivering body another 33.3 miles to the finish line. Thankfully, Julie, who had been pacing me for this 4th loop, had an extra mid-layer and a hat she could spare. I threw those on and was back to feeling (somewhat) normal--as normal as one can feel when running a 100-miler--within a matter of few miles. The devil had almost succeeded in breaking my spirit. But almost succeeding is still failure. I had won.

 This is how I looked at mile 80, after fighting off the chills on the previous lap with Julie (she looks much happier).

This is how I looked at mile 80, after fighting off the chills on the previous lap with Julie (she looks much happier).

The second occurred right around mile 86, as I was approaching Camp Gunny for the final time. By this point, I had been running for almost 24 hours. Even though I'd already changed the batteries to my headlamp once during the race, the second set of batteries was dying. As the light was fading, so too was my consciousness. Instead of chills, this time I was overcome by a wave of tiredness. My eyes were heavy, weighed down by lack of sleep, and probable overexertion. I was literally falling asleep while running. I told Jeremy, who was pacing me this final lap, that I needed to take a nap, however brief it might be. Jeremy--like an owner teaching his puppy the ground rules of coexisting with humans--sternly told me "no." A nap this late in the game was the quickest way to a DNF ("Did Not Finish"). I would lie down, curl up into a ball, close my eyes, and never get up, he said. I knew this risk too. Yet, as I stumbled along in my fatigue haze--swaying from one edge of the trail to the other, like a drunken sailor who is simultaneously trying to find his land legs--I kept thinking to myself, "if I don't close my eyes intentionally, it's going to happen unintentionally and I'll end up with my face in these branches or roots." I told Jeremy that I had no choice--as soon as we reached Camp Gunny, I would nap for 5 minutes. Jeremy reluctantly agreed, but assured me he would not let me sleep a millisecond beyond 300 seconds. We reached Camp Gunny, and I plopped down into a chair, at which point a perceptive volunteer wrapped me in a space blanket. I then tilted my head back, opened my mouth, and fell asleep almost instantly. 299 seconds later (though it felt more like 299 hours), I was jolted awake by Jeremy. After a quick cup of coffee, I was on my way again. In retrospect, this was a brilliant strategic choice. I didn't feel the fatigue haze for the rest of the race. And I didn't face-plant into a tree.

 The biggest struggle of the race? Blisters on blisters. Medical tape was what kept my feet intact.

The biggest struggle of the race? Blisters on blisters. Medical tape was what kept my feet intact.

These 2 moments raise an important point: you can't run an ultra by yourself. I had Julie and Jeremy pacing me on my 4th and 5th laps and supporting me in critical, this-could-be-the-end moments. I also had Phil pacing me on my 3rd lap, where, with each step I took, I couldn't fathom the idea of running two more 20-mile laps after completing the present one. And I had Gillian as my "crew"--she was the field general in charge of resupply, logistics, moral support, and kisses. I was making sacrifices, but they were making sacrifices of a different kind to support me. I can't thank them enough for that.

 The crew, after the finish--Julie, Gillian, Jeremy, and Phil.

The crew, after the finish--Julie, Gillian, Jeremy, and Phil.

I also had the support from all of the millions of volunteers who braved the cold and the freezing rain to serve us grilled cheeses and quesadillas and chicken broth and PB&Js and potato chips (I love potato chips). Last, it's easy to forget the other racers out there. It was good to know that several friends (Brad, Eryn, and Kurt) were out there on the trails with me. And for so many segments, I was running with others--all of whom were having the same thoughts, and feeling the same sensations, as I. This feeling of camaraderie is just as critical to a successful day as any amount of training and preparation.

In the end, I finished in 13th place. I finished many hours off of the tentative goal I had set for myself. But the conditions were tough. The fact that, of the 110 runners who toed the line that morning, 64 ultimately didn't cross the finish line is one indication of the race's difficulty. A finish is a finish. All I can do is be thankful for the experience, and having avoided a more terrible outcome (e.g., serious injury).

It's easy to view the 100-mile experience as an unrelenting sufferfest. In some ways it is. But in other ways, it is a happy journey. Despite the many dark moments I faced, it was impossible not to smile and find levity in the insanity of it all.

 At mile 40, not really believing that I still had 60 miles to run.

At mile 40, not really believing that I still had 60 miles to run.

 At mile 60--with another one and a half marathons of trails to look forward to.

At mile 60--with another one and a half marathons of trails to look forward to.

 When your run is so long that it breaks your workout tracking app.

When your run is so long that it breaks your workout tracking app.

 At mile 100. It was all worth it.

At mile 100. It was all worth it.

The idea of the 100-miler as an adventure--with its bright moments as well as its dark--is what drew me in this time. And I know that it is the pursuit of that adventure that will draw me in again next time. For now, I am looking forward to a break, both physical and psychological, from running. I'll be spending this next week hiking and stargazing with friends in Channel Islands National Park and Joshua Tree National Park. I can't think of a better way to recharge and reflect as the new year begins--and with it, the possibilities of new adventures and challenges in the future.

"Wookie Runs America" + The Trail Running Film Festival by Wookie Kim

I'm proud to announce that "Wookie Runs America"--a short film I put together that summarizes, in 4.5 minutes, my 45-day national park running road trip--is an official selection at this year's Trail Running Film Festival!

I'd always envisioned putting together a video capturing the natural wonders I saw on my trip. So as soon as I finished my trip, I began this process. But given my new job and my lack of experience with any sort of serious video editing, there were several moments where I almost scrapped the project. After almost a year of on-and-off work, I've put together something that I'm proud of and will cherish forever. To think that I'll also be a part of the Trail Running Film Festival--the road tour of which I've attended for the past few years--is icing on the cake. And I'm also a Semi-Finalist for Best Amateur Short--which is a second layer of icing!

I'm hoping to make my way out to Seattle in a couple weeks for the 3-day film festival (my film screens Saturday afternoon), where I'll see "Wookie Runs America" on a big screen.

Here, without further ado, is "Wookie Runs America":

[Note: I still have a gigantic backlog of posts that I've been meaning to write up. I also have a very important story to tell about one of the most significant events in my life (believe it or not, it does not involve this trip). That has been in the works for a while, and I'll still need more time to tell it completely. I'll probably think about scrapping it a few times. But, as with "Wookie Runs America"--and as with any ultramarathon I run--I know I'll eventually get to the finish.]

Things in the Works + Some Podcast Interviews by Wookie Kim

It's been a long time--a really long time! Despite my inactivity, I'm still alive, and I still have plans to bring this trip to a proper ending point (so that the next one can begin, right?). To that end, I want to share the things I have in the works. I also wanted to share two podcast interviews in which I got to chat about my running road trip.

Things in the works:

Final daily blog posts. I still have 5 daily blog posts pending: the last 3 days of my trip--oops!--and then a couple days that happened to slip through the blogging cracks. At this point, these points won't be live updates, but I'm nevertheless committed to finishing them. My hope is that I'll one day put the daily trip narratives into a unified document, as a trip keepsake.

Summation posts. This trip was a learning experience in so many ways. I've yet to sit down and put into words some of my final thoughts. I plan to do so soon. Some topics I plan to write about: my lessons/take-aways, the "best of" lists, defining the word "epic", running economy, how you can run across America, what's next for 2016 (and beyond).

Posts on the National Park Service and our national parks. I'd originally planned to read as much as I could about the NPS and the history of our parks while on the road. That turned out to be an overly ambitious plan. But since finishing, I've begun this work (for example, I recently finished William Tweed's Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks) with gusto. I want to share what I've learned and write more broadly about our national parks. This is somewhat of a long-term project, but I think it's even more appropriate in 2016, the National Park Service's centenary.

A video. This blog has hosted so many of my photos, which in themselves capture and convey so much of what made this trip so memorable. But I can't forget about the 400+ video clips I took along the way! I'm slowly beginning to consolidate the diverse landscapes I saw into a short music video. I need to learn a bit about video editing, so this might take a few months. Here is my "proof of concept", which has confirmed for me that this is a project worth pursuing:

A revamp of the website. This is the lowest priority, but I'd like to transform what has functionally been a blog into a resource on the various national parks that I visited. I already have landing pages for the various regions of the country. But there's no content on any of the park-specific pages. I hope--but don't expect--to update these at some point to include descriptions of each park, the trails I ran, and "best of" photos.

Podcasts:

The Ultra Mindset Podcast.  Damian Lynch invited me to come talk on his podcast after he stumbled across my Instagram account. On his podcast, he interviews "people from around the globe who are achieving the exceptional and pushing the boundaries of what is possible for all of us." Specifically, he focuses on the mindset that allows athletes and adventurers to do really cool things. I had such a blast chatting with Damian, about not only the trip, but also what makes me tick--what keeps me motivated each day.

You can listen to the Ultra Mindset Podcast episode here: http://www.theultramindsetpodcast.com/ep/17/

PersoNatalie Podcast. Natalie Kim invited me to talk on her podcast, on which she interviews "a diverse array of people to get a slice of their personal stories – what motivates them and what makes them who they are – in order to inspire thought and action in others." (There seems to be a common theme here...) During our conversation, we talked more about the stories--funny, scary, motivating--by which I (and maybe others) will remember this trip. 

You can listen to the PersoNatalie Podcast episode here: http://www.personatalie.org/?p=315

 

That's all for now. Stay tuned for more soon. And thanks for reading!