Recently, during a 100-mile race, I hit rock bottom. At mile 38, when I started to push the pace, my right calf tightened up. The vise grip increased with every step. This same problem occurred at the previous two ultras I had entered—Way Too Cool, at mile 2.5, and Lake Sonoma, where it happened when I tried to push the pace at mile 10. Both times, the tight calf necessitated walking into the next aid station, where I dropped.
But this was Western States, and when I told my crew/pacer Cory Smith that my race was done, he looked at me and didn’t say a word. But his expression said, “The only way you’re leaving here is on foot.” My friend Jimmy Dean came over to offer support and assistance. I explained the situation and all he said was, “Hey, Dave Mackey would give anything to be you right now.”
Needless to say, I was not going to drop. Not there, anyway. I changed shoes and hobbled out of there. I started to problem solve, consumed tons of electrolytes and made adjustments to my walk/shuff le. I spent the next 75 minutes getting myself down the 4.2 miles of trail to Last Chance, calculating in my head how I could get to the Auburn finish at that pace by 11 a.m. the next morning. I still had about 20 hours to go the 58 miles.
Fortunately, at Last Chance an aid station volunteer expertly massaged my calf for about 20 minutes, and the tightness abated. The range of motion came back. I could run downhill, shuff le on flats and hike uphills. I was back from the dead and back in the race. More support and encouragement from aid station volunteers and my wonderful crew and pacers got me to the finish line for one of my most rewarding ultras ever.
An ultrarunning adage says that after you start the sport, you improve for seven consecutive years. Your body and mind need that much time to figure it all out and go from “just” completing the distances to racing them at peak levels. For me, this has held very true—2010 was my seventh year, and that’s when I had by far my best races at all distances, with personal bests in all six of them. In 2011, I still had some great races, and even PRed again at 100 miles—assisted by a bear encounter—by all of 42 seconds. I kept racing in 2012, but the edge was off. In 2013, after several DNFs, my ankle required surgery.
That ankle is totally fine now—actually better than ever—but in retrospect I think that my ultra racing was simply done after that peak. I overdid it, racing too frequently and too hard, and it was during a time of other life stress. My well was run dry.
At Western States this year, with my race over and my ego shattered at mile 38, I went from a racing mentality to simply finishing, and that was transformative for me. I am hoping that maybe I’m entering a second seven year cycle. Once again, it is about simply completing ultras and finding the joy and satisfaction in that. As my ego lets go of the need for speed, my body and mind will adjust to just getting it done.
As I get stronger and gain confidence with finishing ultras, I may be able to come back to pushing the pace, maybe even racing again a few years down the line.
At this rate, I figure that I’ll be peaking again in 2020 at age 55. Who knows how high that peak will be, but I’m excited about it and the journey to get there.
Wherever you are in your unique ultrarunning career, I hope you are finding challenges and the many different types of rewards that it has to offer.
In recent years there has been an increasing focus on FKTs (Fastest Known Times) on various unique—and usually remote and super long—trails. We cover six of them in this issue, three in News and Notes and three others more in-depth in our feature section. We wanted to shine a light on FKTs, as they are relatively new to the ultra scene but entail much of what is great about our sport: completing epic distances on foot in beautiful places, and relying on both guts and the help of others to accomplish life-changing goals. This issue also features the inspiring story of Tonia Smith as she and her family take on and overcome massive challenges through ultrarunning.
We also have helpful and informative articles from our columnists, and plenty of great race reports and photos to keep you abreast of the latest and greatest in the sport of ultrarunning.
May your every run be a great one!