Razorback 100 Race Report, Guest Blog by Matt Carvalho
What are you running from is probably the most common quip I hear from people who find out about my hobby the last few years. I decided to sit down and write not just about my most recent run, but what lead me to run in the first place.
“Hmmmph”, the reply from my high school PE coach, accompanied by a sad shake of the head, as I hand him yet another doctor’s note excusing me from running the mile due to asthma. I could never run more than a quarter mile lap without being completely out of breath. And so I never tried. I played tennis and did other sports where I could run for just seconds at a time before being able to catch my breath again. I took one prescription medicine after another every day for what felt like 10 years straight basically just to get through the day.
A few years after college I tried to start a new life- tired of my addition like reliance on antihistamines and whatever new decongestant was on the market. I was a type A personality in many other aspects of life, yet when it came to control over my own body, rather it was breathing, or resisting fast food I never had any direction.
Shortly after marrying my college sweetheart Maria in 2008 we moved in with her parents in order to try and save up in hopes of buying our first home shortly down the road. Her dad was a small man by stature, but enormous by any measure of life. I didn’t notice at first, but after a while I caught on that he would go out for a run just about every morning for a few miles.
They live in a very hilly part of San Jose, these were not easy miles by any means. Yet it seemed to leave him happier each day- there was no special diet he followed, no fancy workout gear, he just enjoyed throwing on an old pair of shoes and running for enjoyment. He often asked if we’d ever join him, but with my embarrassing track record when it came to running- I would always decline.
“The diagnosis is not good”, news we received from my wife’s eldest brother. My farther-in-law had late stage cancer and would not be with us a year later. This was devastating for the whole family. We did what we could with the time we had, including a last minute trip with him to visit Lourdes France. But before long there was an enormous hole.
In an effort to keep the family close knit, we signed up for a 5k run up in San Francisco with all of the siblings. Having nightmares of my previous attempts at running a single mile, this simple 3 mile run seemed an impossible hurdle.
We started training, heading to the Campbell Community center track and running in circles. At first 4 or 5 laps (1-1.25 miles) was a big day. Each weekend I’d try to add on one more lap. I would bring paper clips in my pockets and move them from one to another each lap in order to keep track (I have the short term memory of Dory from Finding Nemo).
Along the way, someone mentioned to me: you don’t have to run it straight through- run a mile and then walk for a minute and then run another mile. As simple as that sounds, it broke down this overwhelming mental hurdle that I had built up over the years.
What before seemed like an impossible achievement, suddenly seemed like something I could plan and train my way towards. The year was 2010. I turned 29 in Jan that year, and I couldn’t run a 12 min mile if I tried. That August I finished the San Francisco Marathon weekend 5k in 33:08, a 10:40 mile pace for just over 3 miles.
I felt on top of the world. I literally wore a cap during the run because I felt like a super hero. I truly believed that if I could actually finish that 5k race, I could do anything. I headed back to the track, with more paper clips. If I didn’t die from a 5k, would I be able to pull off something really crazy like a 10k??? That would surely satisfy any deep hidden bitterness I had from not being able to run a mile before all those years before, right?
My wife and I ran a 10k shortly after, and then we set our sights on a half marathon.
Somehow I came across an ad for a run down in Long Beach- it advertised that 90% of the half marathon was within sight of the beach, you were literally running down the paved bike paths common on the SoCal beaches. That sounded pretty ideal. Not to mention we could make a weekend out of it and stop by Disneyland for a day or two. Sold.
That was honestly the longest 13.1 miles of my life. It was hot, humid and miserable. I dragged myself to the finish, vowing I’d never run another mile. My time was 2:32, about an 11:40 min mile pace.
But that thought didn’t last long. Perhaps it was the venue that was rough? So I tried a few more places. In fact over the next 12 months I ran about 20 half marathons. That’s not a typo, literally having some on back to back weekends.
Maria and I ran them in San Francisco. San Jose. San Leandro. Disneyland. Disneyworld. Lisbon, Portugal. We ran them everywhere.
And along the way we signed up for a Full Marathon. This was the ultimate. Finish this, and I was sure the running world would be in my rear view mirror. We decided to head back to Long Beach, because hey- why not.
On a training run a few weeks before the race, I hurt my foot. I needed a walking boot for a time, and I didn’t run for the few weeks leading up to the race. Then my stomach got to me the night before. I did all types of crazy concoctions to my shoe to try and accommodate my foot issue that day. And for a while it worked. 10 miles in, I was as happy as could be. Then the injury, lack of sleep and deficit of calories got to me. I finished in 6:18. A 14 min pace.
At this point I had pretty much had it with road races. Crowded, painful, isolated. Then my brother in law Will mentioned these runs that people did on trails, often in the mountains. There was a family friend, John Nguyen, who was a pro at these things and gave us a big recommendation for them. We started YouTubing Ultra Marathons.
Ultra Marathons are basically runs of any distance beyond a traditional marathon of 26.2 miles. They often go for 50k (~31 miles), 50 miles, 100k, or 100 miles. These are ridiculous distances to think about, and if you bring it up to anyone, the most common reply is I don’t even like to drive X miles. Oh, and often these runs are on single track technical trails with a lot of elevation gain.
I like being out in nature. And I also liked running. This was a phenomenal combination of the two. The culture at these events was far different as well: people were friendly to each other, it never feels like a rat race. Few people were worried about time, everyone was there for the experience; simply finishing these long runs was prize enough. Their aid stations had candy, soda and potatoes with salt. The dirtier you were at the end, the more you could boast about your run. People worked hard on the trails and then celebrated with beer and BBQ afterwards.
Luckily enough NoCal is the epicenter of ultramarathons, the combination of great natural sites and good weather meant there are a lot of events in our area.
I signed up for the Quicksilver 50k. It’s main selling point? It’s a beautiful course with great views and the starting line is 15 mins from my house. The downside? It’s got over 6,000 feet of elevation gain and can get extremely hot.
It was hot that day, unseasonably so, reaching the 90s in early May. Despite collapsing about a mile from the finish (that race could be a whole separate piece), I finished. 7 hours and 37 mins.
This was 2012. To recap:
In 2009 I couldn’t run a mile
In 2010 I crossed a 5k, 10k and half marathon off the list
In 2011 I crossed marathon off
In 2012, I was an ultramarathoner.
Would I recommend that? Maybe not. It’s always easy to find an excuse not to do something. I look back over the years at some of my notes from previous runs and it was never an easy process. But if you really want to accomplish something, you shouldn’t let anything stop you- especially the little things we all face: lack of free time, stresses from work, and too many distractions.
Along the way I had been approached by an old college friend who had started a health foods company and was looking for some ‘everyday athletes’ to help promote their brand and provide testimonials on their website. I blushed at the request- why in the world would anyone want me to set any kind of an example in the athletic world. In my own eyes, I still didn’t see myself as a runner. But before I knew it- I could smirk and call myself a sponsored athlete- a line my wife has understandably cursed many times.
Over the next few years I continued to push the distance. A few more 50ks and then some 50 milers, then a 100k (62 miles). Now I was ready to take on what I thought was an insane challenge, completing a 100 mile race.
I signed up for the Razorback 100 mile race, located in the foothills of San Martin, a tiny town about 25 mins south of San Jose, to be held on March 5/6, 2016.
Starting Jan 1st of this year I was on a mission. I was set on starting and finishing this run. That meant no fast food or alcohol, getting plenty of sleep, taking lots of vitamins, turmeric, fish oils and a boat load of chia seeds. I didn’t run huge miles, but I was running 5-6 days a week, sometimes in the morning, sometimes at night, or in the afternoon right after lunch. I would throw in an occasional 10 mile run one night followed by another 10 miles as soon as I woke up in the morning. Or perhaps doing 4 different 5 miles runs within a 36 hour period. I was trying to make my body anti-fragile. I started Orange Theory classes to work on my speed and core.
Doing this I was only logging 25-30 miles a week, which sounds like a lot until you consider the faster people at this distance may average 80-100 miles a week at the peak of their training.
Nevertheless, I just wanted to reach the starting line healthy. An added bonus was a week out the weather looked absolutely perfect.
Then three things happened. Like a clutz, I twisted my ankle on a pothole walking to grab lunch during work one day. The swelling wasn’t bad, but it was tender. I iced it, soaked it, rubbed it, and generally tried to stay off it as much as possible during the 8 days before the run. But trying to stay as sedentary as possible for 8 days before attempting to complete a 100 mile race is absolute terror on your psyche. I had a bad case of the ‘taper tantrums’.
The second complication was that Maria and our daughter Kate had both been sick over the preceding week. This meant I was paranoid I may catch the bug and also that Maria wouldn’t be able to help crew as much for this run as she had in the past. Not only is she my wife and best friend, but also my coach, motivator and ass kicker out on the course, having made sure I finished each of the previous runs I had started. It was like losing your safety blanket.
Luckily a few months before I had asked my Mom if she could get the weekend off work to help out as well, it was going to be a busy weekend taking care of me out on the trail and 2 year old Kate at the same time. Mom hadn’t been to any of my big runs before as they were often on days she worked or far out of the area. I told her it would just be like one long picnic.
The third unfortunate aspect was that the weather forecast turned uglier as race day grinded closer. First rain appeared in the forecast. Then wind. The weather service issued a wind advisory and flash flood warnings- the strong el Nino weather which had been promised but unrealized all year was finally going to make an appearance!
The race would go on. People in the ultra running community are the toughest folk I know. They’d be doing mud runs out in nature decades before they were cool.
The alarm went off at 3:45am. I got up, took a shower and managed to down most of a humungous bowl of steel cut oatmeal/chia seeds/hemp seeds/blueberries/banana and drank a cup of coffee, my pre-race routine.
Arriving at the race my nerves were still going crazy, I got sick to my stomach, consistent with each of my previous times attempting a new, ridiculous length run. Mom and I set up the tent and got a few essentials into it.
I finished my most recent half marathon in just under two hours (~8:50 pace, quiet a difference from my first one), but with distances this long you never want to get your heart rate elevated, aiming for an average of somewhere right around a 9:30-10:00 min mile the first 10 miles or so would be perfect.
The bullhorn went off, I started jogging and chatting with a few friends who were also just as twisted in the head. And then, about 5 mins into the run, it started pouring. This course is a simple two mile loop around a large open space in the foot hills of the mountain range around Coyote Lake. Yet in the 20 mins it took me to get back to the aid station, I was soaked from head to foot. Knowing that I had 24-36 hours left to go, I was shell-shocked.
The next few hours went by fairly smoothly. I was wet the entire time, but it wasn’t my first mud run.
As the miles ticked by, the rain simply didn’t let up. I hit mile 20 around 4 hours in, and started to worry. I had been moving well, but wouldn’t the rain eventually get to me? My feet were so cold, and I knew there would be no way to keep them warm in the foreseeable future. The wind was picking up- were the stakes in the tent going to be enough?
I continued the pace, knocking off another few 2 mile laps- I needed to get the first 26 miles out of the way as quickly as possible to both have completed a marathon but also know that I was now a quarter of the way into this race.
During every ultra marathon you’ll have numerous ups and downs, I think it’s just part of the nature of any challenging activity that takes more than a few hours. I finished the 26 and pushed ahead for a few more, but I noticed I really didn’t have an appetite which was odd and concerning this far into a run. Around mile 30 I started adding up the facts I saw in front of me:
Pouring rain since the start- won’t I get bad blisters sooner or later?
I’m a bit behind where I wanted to be because of the wind and rain, changing toe socks often and applying desitin on every occasion was time consuming!
I’ve probably burned about 5,000 calories and eaten maybe 1,000 since the start of the run.
And I still had 70 miles to go. This was not good. At that point my stomach decided it would echo the uncertainty my mind was currently feeling.
I tried to regroup- reminding myself I had been down and out before, but never given up. I popped in a few ginger chews (helps with an upset stomach) and was able to down a few precious madeleine’s and some coconut water with chia seeds. I walked for about an hour, and then my energy returned.
Mile 34 I was cranking, my speed slowed a bit from the start, but I was making steady consistent progress knocking miles off at around a 11:00 pace, which I felt was pretty good at this point in the race while still taking in a few calories here and there as well as trying to change socks often. This was probably around 3pm.
My written goal (all of you probably know I documented everything in Excel from my pacing for the day, to the exact workouts I wanted to accomplish in the 30 days leading up to the run) was to get to 50 miles in the first 13 hours of the run, basically during daylight.
But my secret goal (thanks Bernadette for that term), was to knock out the first 50 in closer to my American River 50 mile pace of closer to 11 hours the last 2 years. I felt I was in better shape now, and this course had less elevation gain. Well, secret goals are a dangerous thing for me, because if I don’t hit them- I start to really lose my mojo. I finished mile 50 right around the 12 hour mark, basically splitting the difference.
I decided to take it easy for a bit and walk a few laps. But the constant rain and the idea that walking it in would take me almost an entire day to complete was pretty heavy.
Tracy Johnson is the race director of this run and is a really great chief. Unfortunately because of my intolerance for food most of that day, I didn’t get to try much of her great home cooking. However, there were hot meals being prepared at the aid station every 6 hours, and that evening was every ultra runners favorite- pizza.
Eating and running is an acquired skill, which comes better for some than others. Historically, it had actually been something I excelled at, often running with a pb&j sandwich in a ziplock bag in my pocket- waiting for a step uphill section during which I would hike and eat- continuously moving forward. However, on this run- not even piping hot pizza sounded appetizing or would stay down…
I missed Kate and Maria and picture them at home in a warm bed- and thought, why am I away from my family? What the hell am I doing? I’m struggling to some made up goal. I would keep in the back of my head my Grandpa’s stories of his time in Europe around WWII, or my Father-in-Laws struggles getting to the US from a war-torn Vietnam.
Perhaps it’s that search for accomplishment that pushes you to do seemingly impossible things. But those other stories were real life struggles; I was spending my weekend running in circles through the rain in the hills 30 mins from my house- that’s got to be pretty close to the legal definition of insanity.
I struggled on for a while longer, getting to mile 64 (which beat my previous longest distance ~100K), before the weather really turned- suddenly the windy constant rain turned violent, coming down in sheets and getting right into your face no matter how far you had your hood pulled down. The aid station flooded, the trail flooded, there were suddenly rivers on the course where there had not been before- this was a biblical downpour that I haven’t seen in California in years… About half of the remaining runners decided to call it a day at this point- I couldn’t blame them, if I hadn’t been so focused on this one event I would have called it early as well.
During 100 mile runs, some runners choose to take a nap for say an hour or less, others keep going the whole time. My original plan was to keep going- I was paranoid that if I was to stop for any meaningful period of time- I might not be able to get up and get going again.
I wasn’t tired in the traditional sense, I was just so defeated from the rain, wind and wet shoes; I had to get dry. It was around midnight when I headed to join Mom in the car which she had wisely sought shelter in some time ago, and planned to change into something dry, try to feel my feet again, and think things through.
I was able to nap for about 90 mins, waking every 10 mins to listen to the rain- it continued the whole time. I checked my phone and saw all the warnings of flash floods and high wind advisories.
I began to doubt everything, and why did this have to happen to me?? I had put in so many hours of training, so much preparation making sure I had the right supplies, was ready for this specific course on this specific day, and now this. I asked Mom is God was telling me that I shouldn’t being running a 100 miler?
I decided I would quit. I made my way over to the aid station in search of Tracy to tell her. A bit of background here, I had lobbied hard for her to hold this race when there were some doubts after the park permits took way too long to get approved. This was a small race by most standards, but to me- it was the opportunity I needed, and I pleaded as hard as I could to make sure the race went on. Telling her I was throwing in the towel was going to be brutal. By this time about 2/3 of the crowd already had.
But she wasn’t there. She was off taking a quick nap at 2am, and so I chit chatted with the remaining few people at the aid station for a bit, seriously weighing my options as I stared at the accumulating rain drops- the aid station despite being a fantastically large tent was now in several inches of mud. How bad I would feel if I turned tail in the middle of the night without even saying goodbye? She might literally kill me!
Suddenly the rain stopped. It was the middle of the night and the trail was completely underwater- but the rain had stopped!!! Worried it was only a temporary reprieve, I told myself I would do some laps for an hour or two and then reconsider my circumstance once Tracy was back at the aid station.
The clouds began to part and it looked like the rain might hold off a bit longer. I took it as a sign, and I knew exactly where it came from.
This wasn't the first 100 mile race I had planned for. Last August I had trained for a very similar run. Leading up to that run I went through a similar practice of calibrating my runs, workouts, diet, massage, stretching- all to peak on a certain date which was preset months in advance.
My Grandma Jean had been sick for some time, in and out of the hospital the last few years, and she had currently been in the hospital for some time. We had visited her there a few times over the previous months, but this time was different. Early on the day before the race, I got a call from Mom saying her health had deteriorated and that I might want to come visit soon. I already had the day off from work as I had planned to spend it prepping all the supplies for the following day. So I headed up to Walnut Creek early, and spent time with Grandma. But as the day wore on her condition worsened, groups of our family arrived from all over the Bay Area to say their last goodbyes. And late that night she joined Grandpa up in heaven.
I was cranky that day back in August. I was so frustrated because I wouldn’t be able to complete the goal I had spent months preparing for. But immediately afterwards I was furious at myself for even being the tiniest bit upset at the timing. What kind of a monster was I? How could I be so selfish?
But these were the types of thoughts that go through your head when you are so singularly focused on one goal for such a long period that you start to loose site of its relative importance. Dedicating more time to Kate, grabbing a beer with coworkers, having more free time on the weekends to spend with friends and family- these were all things I had sacrificed over the last few months, to some degree years for this goal.
I hesitated to even mention that story as part of this blog. But it’s part of the story of me, and it played over and over again in my mind that night.
I had listened to music for a while earlier in the day, but my normal running routine is podcasts. I listen to everything from financial market updates, sports talk, bio hacking techniques (how to program your body to perform better, which comes in very handy during these type of runs), or sometimes books on tape. Right then I needed something different, and I queued up Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. I listed to about 4 hours of WWI history retold in a story format with all types of random tidbits form a variety of sources thrown in. The detailed stories helped put my focus somewhere else.
I was fascinated at the sea of stars that had replaced the clouds which had been the scorn of my day. The stars had that feeling of being so close you could touch them that you only get when far away from the city lights.
Time passed quickly, and before I knew it I was arriving at mile 74. The prospect of “only” having a marathon left was a huge relief. Finishing the race finally felt like an actual possibility.
The two mile course was both a blessing and a curse. It’s short enough that you’re never far from food or a change of clothes. But it also means it’s very hard to get into a rhythm and it’s easy to waste a few minutes lingering at the aid station each time you pass through.
By this point I was walking about 90% of it, I ran here and there, but it was pretty painful and I ended up deciding I was more likely to hurt myself and therefore decrease my walking pace than I was to appreciate that slightly faster pace. I was pretty steady at around a 16-18:00 walking pace.
A lot of runners cry when they complete their first marathon, or certainly a race of this distance. Somewhere around 5am was probably my most emotional point. I thought of all the times I had sacrificed away from family, the Sat mornings Maria would have to take care of Kate so I could go to this race or that. The times she had helped crew for me at previous runs spending whole weekends away in the mountains somewhere so that her crazy husband could fulfill this weird new fetish of his. The nights I would complain about what we were planning to have for dinner because it had too many carbs or not enough fat in it (I’ve found a high protein/fat/veggie diet worked the best for my training). These were the crazy things I put my family through in order to get to this point- I HAD to make all of that effort translate into something meaningful.
Around 6am I woke my Mom in the car with the good news that I had continued through the night and that I was closing in on 80 miles complete! At my current pace, knowing I’d need to continue to eat calories along the way, I was looking at somewhere around 6 hours to go. Most days that would seem like an eternity, but at this moment that felt like the best news I had heard in years.
As dawn crept up, I came across a coyote clutching a squirrel in its mouth. I was quiet happy he already had a meal- as I wasn’t going to be able to outrun a snail by this point. The frogs who had serenaded me all night gave way to songbirds and roosters off in the distance. I turned off the podcasts and just enjoyed the slow transition to daylight. A new day was beginning, and on this day I would complete my journey.
As crazy as these long runs sound, they often have periods of intense peacefulness. Surviving these distances is all consuming, suddenly those work emails don’t exist anymore, that room in the house you’ve been meaning to paint is not a concern, you’re not worried about the future- you’re completely present, and at this moment you only have one task to focus on- keep moving forward.
Mom was able to walk the next few laps with me, as I happily enjoyed a hot breakfast burrito from the aid station. I love burritos, and with my stomach finally settled, I was eating everything in sight. It was also a great time just to just walk and talk about life. For such a disaster filled weekend, there were many silver linings.
A few more laps passed and then sister/brother in law Ann and Will came back out to the course, they had dropped of some additional dry clothes and shoes the previous afternoon. Will walked many laps with me, we talked about movies, sports, anything really helped pass the time and keep my mind away from my body that was getting sorer with each step.
The sun came out later in the morning and while the course was still mud and water, it felt great to have just a bit of warmth for the first time in so long. My mind was furious that this couldn’t have been the weather yesterday. But, I was ticking off miles now into the 90s and with the finish line in sight I couldn’t worry about how hard the journey was to get there- I just needed to be thankful for where I was at that very moment.
And then the finish came. I mustered up enough energy to run the last little quarter mile, and finish strong heading back into the aid station were Maria, Kate, Mom, Ann, Will, a group of race volunteers and a park ranger were waiting. This was not some big city marathon, with rows of cheering fans 10 people deep. This was much more personal, it was just me and some close family, those willing to take time out of their own weekend to indulge my madness.
What had been a village of tents and ice chests 24 hours before had been washed away leaving just a few battered remains. There were about 80 runners signed up for the event, of which about 25 were aiming for the 100 mile distance. I came in third out of the seven of us that finished.
What a thought. I look forward to telling my grandchildren someday how I was a sponsored athletic who finished on the podium of a 100 mile race through rain, wind, snow, hail, and tornados, naturally going up-hill both ways.
I was both elated and letdown at the same time. The training, concentration and actual execution of the run can be so all consuming, that when you’re done some tiny piece of you is hollow- part of your purpose and drive are suddenly gone.
You pretty quickly learn it’s not the length of the race, but how prepared mentally you are for it. I’ve never been a great runner. But running has transformed my life in so many ways. It’s introduced me to great new friends and amazing places all around the world. It’s a place where I can think. When time is at a premium, it’s a very efficient form of exercise. But most importantly I’ve learned more about myself during those hours out on a trail than I ever would have imagined.
It was a race I’ll always look back on fondly, regardless of how terrifying it was at times. It was the moment I proved so many people in my past wrong. It was the moment I realized that if a wind sucking, clumsy runner with bad breathing habits like myself can finish a 100 mile footrace, than anything in life was truly possible.
"When I'm out on a long run, the only thing is life that matters is finishing the run. For once- my brain isn’t going blah, blah, blah, blah, all the time. Everything quiets down and the only thing going on is pure flow. It's just me and the movement and the motion. That's what I love, just being a barbarian, running through the woods."