Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning: A Retrospective

It has been a while since I completed the Slam but quite honestly I kind of got tired of hearing myself talk about my own racing so I quite blogging.  However, I remember as I was preparing for the Slam I kept coming across blogs that would have posts that lasted at most up to Leadville and then just ended.  I always wondered what happened to those people, did they finish the Slam?  Did they just get sick of hearing the sound of their own voice recapping the experience?  I may never know but the experience left me thinking that if I did finish I would be sure to write up something for future slammers who may be interested.   So, this is that.

Obviously I completed the slam because I did post a half-hearted Wasatch race report however this is really just focused on the Slam experience.  Shortly after my first post on the Slam I received an e-mail from a fellow New Mexican who had also completed the Slam a few years earlier.  He said a friend of his had come across my post and told him I had mentioned his name so he thought he'd drop me a line.  I forget what all we talked about but the thing that stuck with me was that he said he wished he would have maintained a better attitude throughout the Slam.  My impression was that he started getting burned out and didn't approach the entire Slam as one big adventure but rather as a series of races that are close together in time.  That kind of resonated with something I heard from a Slammer I met during my first running of Wasatch.  She said that she felt worn thin, kind of used up and insubstantial.  It seemed to me at the time that she was referring to how she felt both physically and emotionally.  However, she did finish Wasatch and the Slam.

When I started the Slam I was determined to treat the whole thing as one experience not as separate races.  Of course I tried to stay focused in the moment during each individual race and I appreciated what each race had to offer, but I did keep coming back to the central notion that I was involved in a four month long single experience and I do think that attitude helped not only for each individual race but in the context of all the races combined.

Of all the races in the Slam I find myself thinking back most on Western States.  It kind of sucked because I had a groin injury that had been nagging me at a low level but it really flared up during the first 30 miles of WS and then it just kind of went away but I had lost a fair amount of time and a sub-24 was  definitely out of reach if it ever was.  However, the weather was fantastic and it is such an iconic course that it's pretty hard not to enjoy the experience.  It just really felt like a privilege to be Western States and it still does.

Vermont was interesting in that I learned that I could actually run far more of an ultra, at least a flatter ultra, that I would have expected.  I just kept running and running and ran myself to a 100 mile PR of 22:31.  It was pretty cool to discover that about myself and of course it was really cool to run with the horses even though they weren't around all the time.  I wouldn't go back to Vermont again but that's just because I live half-way across the country and mountains are more my thing but Like Western States, I cherish my memories of this classic 100-miler.

I had already run Leadville and Wasatch so nothing new there though I had my biggest struggle at Leadville but that was due to a stupid mistake of my own and had nothing to do with the Slam. I was actually running quite strong and was on pace for a course PR until shortly after inbound Twin Lakes.  The one thing that was a huge disappointment was the fact that since Lifetime Fitness has taken over Leadville it is all about the people in the Leadman competition and everyone else is just background noise.  It didn't used to be that way.  It used to be the case that at Leadville everyone was equally nobody and somebody, it was a very egalitarian race.  This year two guys who were in the Leadman thing finished right ahead of me and the announcer talked about them like they were gods.  When I came across the finish like you could actually hear the announcer fumbling with paper and quickly saying, "Here's Brian Pilgrim, he's 45."  I was thinking, "Hey asshat, I'm doing the freakin' Grand Slam of Ultrarunning.  This is my 13th lifetime 100-miler.  I've done 7 Ironmen and 50 other marathons and ultras!"

Anyway, that was just my ego talking and of course I knew that the reward for doing these things is purely personal so it's not like it took anything from me but the sad thing was that if just felt like the end of an era for Leadville.  A corporate owner can't help but corporatize everything they touch so while the outward appearance was still mostly like my Leadville experience of 2010 the race had taken a hard shift toward "promoting their product and the Leadville brand."

As the Slam progressed I ended up feeling both stronger and weaker.  I felt stronger because I was running better during each subsequent race but I felt weaker because it seemed like any mistake I might make took more out of me and was harder to come back from.  For example, I have had periods during 100 milers where I got really sick to my stomach and ended up throwing up but then all I needed to do was slow down a bit for a while, focus on refueling and then at some point later in the race I would come back fairly strong.  This was not the case by the time I hit Leadville.  When I got sick just past inbound Twin Lakes I was able to finally get back on top of things after about 18 miles of struggling but there was no significant comeback just running better.  I am also used to getting a fresh burst of energy on the second morning of a 100 if I'm still on the trail at second morning's light but that did not happened either.  I was just able to keep grinding out the miles at a slow but steady pace but, in the end, that's really all it takes to complete the Grand Slam.

During the Slam I maintained my mileage somewhat between races by taking five days completely off after a race and the I would start running again the following Saturday.  Most of my runs stayed in the 4 to 6 mile range but I did do a couple half marathon distance runs though I felt like these ended up being ill advised.  I ended up running 100 miles of maintenance running between each race so I had about 200 miles per month in June, July, August and September.  I also ran the Javelina 100k in October and set a 100k PR but that really wiped me out and I only ran maybe 100 miles in November and again in December.  What I really needed to do was just immediately take some serious time off after Wasatch but I had it in my head that I would get almost 7 weeks of recuperation between Wasatch and Javelina and then I would be in awesome shape to run a fast time at Javelina.  I did run a fast time but it completely depleted my endurance.  It's almost like I used up something vital that doesn't normally get tapped because it shouldn't get tapped except in the case of a life threatening emergency.

So there it is, my Grand Slam experience.  I have to say it was awesome and I feel both privileged and humbled to have run it.  If you keep your attitude right and focus on enjoying the whole experience then I think you will find it's the experience of a lifetime.  I wouldn't say that it has changed my life, that would be way overly dramatic.  However, it is the experience of a lifetime.  The Slam is of those things that is so strange and wonderful, so outrageous, so courageous, so far beyond what 99.9 percent of people on this earth ever do that the memory of it dwells within you like an ancient god maybe lost to this world but still powerful and abiding.

The other amazing thing about the Slam is that, while it's not the most impressive achievement in ultrarunning, there was a man and a woman who ran like 32 100-milers the year I ran the Slam, there is a community of Slammers both past, present and future.  The Slam is not just some free-floating individual achievement.  The Slam ties you to the history and community of the sport like nothing else.

If any future Slammers ever read this post I sincerely hope you find it helpful, find it motivational or possibly even both.  From the depths of my heart I wish you well.  I have had my adventure now go and have yours and may it be everything you imagine it will be and more.

I leave you with a Navajo prayer that resonates with me as an ultrarunner.  Enjoy.

The Navajo Beauty Way Ceremony

In beauty may I walk

All day long may I walk

Through the returning seasons may I walk

Beautifully I will possess again

Beautifully birds

Beautifully joyful birds

On the trail marked with pollen may I walk

With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk

With dew about my feet may I walk

With beauty may I walk

With beauty before me may I walk

With beauty behind me may I walk

With beauty above me may I walk

With beauty all around me may I walk

In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk

In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk

It is finished in beauty

It is finished in beauty