Eastern States 100
SAAVIK Permission to speak candidly, sir? KIRK Very well. SAAVIK (fights emotion) I don't believe this was a fair test of my command capabilities. KIRK And why not? SAAVIK Because... there was no way to win. KIRK A no-win situation is a possibility every commander may face. Has that never occurred to you? SAAVIK ... No, sir. It has not. KIRK How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn't you say? SAAVIK (falters) As I indicated, Admiral, that thought had not occurred to me. KIRK Then you have something new to think about. Carry on.
This is from the opening scene of one of my favorite movies, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. A cadet has just taken The Kobyashi Maru test - a no-win scenario, a test of character.
The cadet, a Vulcan who has forsaken all emotion in the pursuit of total logic, has to come to terms with her own failure and reconcile the innately emotional (and human) nature of death.
The Eastern States 100 was my Kobyashi Maru.
Dramatic, I know. But it's true.
I've struggled to write a race report. This was a race I devoted so much time and energy to and it took so much from me.
Along with two hundred runners (nearly two-thirds of which were doomed to failure judging by the historical drop rates), I lined up for a 5am start at Little Pine State Park. hoping to complete a circumnavigation of Pine Creek (“the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania”). I was confident despite it being my first attempt at the hundred mile distance and the daunting details (over 20,000 feet of elevation gain - more than four times what I’ve faced in any 50 miler and the brutal finish rate of roughly 33%). My training had gone fairly well. I had successfully set a difficult FKT I had my eyes on for the better part of a year and I fully expected to compete for a podium spot.
Just prior to the start, I fretted over nutrition and allowed myself to be rushed a little so I never settled in and really appreciated the atmosphere. The start of a thing is very important and this lapse of awareness and presence was, even in the moment, something I wish I had a better grasp of.
But then the race began and good or bad, that all went away.
From the get-go there was definitely a little bit of chest puffing going on in the top ten (for the first few miles I was comfortably seated in the 5/6/7 range. It was faster than I expected, but not uncomfortably so. I rolled with it. It was a little bit off my plan, which was to take the early miles super (suuuuuuper) easy, but it served one of my tactical goals which was to get to the first major climb ahead of the bulk of the field (and presumably the weaker climbers). This would allow me to run at my own pace and conserve energy
There was some easy pavement and then some trail. I was rolling.
Once we got on the trail, I noticed a definite difference between myself and the leaders - their moves seemed effortless while I was laboring a little bit - not a lot - ever-so-slightly more than they were. It concerned me and I was a little preoccupied with this concern.
THEN - disaster struck. I placed my foot on a rock slick with dew and the world went sideways.
I vividly recall landing twice. First: hard on my left side, my knee taking most of the impact. I slid across the rock and then landed (even harder, it seemed) on my left shoulder. My shocked body settled on the canted slab of wet granite. Once I had stopped, I tried to push myself up and to laugh it off. I couldn’t accomplish either. My shoulder was limp and numb and my leg buckled beneath me.
My immediate thought was that I dislocated my shoulder. I chuckled a little and made a joke about always wanting to run like Kilian (who recently ran Hardrock with a dislocated shoulder). and once I gained a little purchase with my left leg, I hoped that the shoulder was the worst of it. I tried to get going. Every left step hurt. I tried loosening up my arm. I willed my limp to a pathetic trot, just trying to get to the first big climb of the race. Just before I started the ascent, I gazed down at my knee and in the light of my headlamp, I finally saw the scope of the injury: a superficial gash across the kneecap, and below along the joint, a ton of blood and ragged skin hanging loose. My previously white calf sleeve was soaked red.
Hobbled but moving, I arrived at the first major climb of the race. All I could do was focus on getting through it. The plan was to hike every extreme grade and preserve my legs for later miles. As fate would have it, that’s all I could do. So at least I had that going for me. I knew the first aid station wasn’t far away and that I could get a bandage there. A not-so-quiet voice in my head was telling me that I’d be lucky to make it to the aid station at roughly 18 miles in, where I’d see my crew for the first time and that even if I did, I would have to quit there. That wasn't a helpful thought so I focused on the moment and did what I could to silence that voice begging caution.
If I wanted to finish the race, I had to.
After arriving at the first aid station and hastily patching my knee with duct tape, I got into something of a rhythm. I was hiking runnable terrain but on the flats and easy uphills, I was really moving and running plenty.
I joined other runners and worked with them to maintain an honest pace. I never pushed it and was comfortable with the exception of the knee which truly hurt every time I stepped on my left leg. But like all pain, that eventually receded into numbness. There were two or three stretches of four or five miles, maybe forty-five minutes each, when I forgot about the knee entirely and was running something resembling the race I had planned.
And by the time I made it to my crew near mile 18, I was only fifteen minutes off my goal split. My injury was significant but I was moving well enough that I expected I would still finish. My crew (trusted Uncle Jeff and longtime trail buddy Sam Graul) were somewhat shocked by the sight of my wound. A volunteer approached and suggested that the wound looked deep and offered the services of a medic. I thanked her for the concern but dismissed her. In retrospect that was the crucial mistake of the day. I was legitimately concerned that I would be pulled from the race if anybody in an official capacity saw my knee. I was convinced it looked far worse than it was. After ten minutes in the aid station patching myself up and getting ready for the next assault, I left energized and committed to the trial at hand.
Miles 18 - 28 were okay. About what I expected in terms of difficulty. Mile 31 - 38 was damn pleasant until a rain storm whipped up just as I headed into an Aid Station to meet the crew again.
That Aid Station was an unmitigated disaster and almost entirely because I didn’t come up with a good rain plan for my crew. They needed a popup tent and tarps and we didn’t have any of that. The mad dash toward a corner of the aid station tent resulted in losing the medical bag and soaking many of my alternate shirts and socks.
But we rolled with it and I kept on moving decently, to the Aid Station at mile 43. I was soaked and still pissed off about the aid station five miles and nearly an hour and a half earlier and I spent too long changing shoes and for the first time I think I complained that my knee might force me to drop. In retrospect, I'm amazed how quickly the negativity seeped in. If you crack, if you allow those thoughts even the slightest purchase, they will consume you. However, in spite of all of that, the encroaching negativity and the daunting task (100k to go!) ahead, I left that Aid Station feeling pretty good and confident that I could accomplish my goal.
Let’s make a long story short(er) by saying, I didn’t feel pretty good and confident for long. The hematoma on my knee grew and grew and it became increasingly difficult to bend the joint. I was climbing pretty well, and I could jog flats with considerable pain but descents were quickly becoming impossible. I kept moving toward mile 53 to pick up Sam, who was to be my first pacer, about fourteen hours into the race, two hours behind goal pace.
Turns out, because of my slow pace, my whole family was waiting for me at the Aid Station (aptly named Halfway House). They were joined by special guest star Steve Tucker (who bested me at TNFECDC50 in April, a guy I went to war with and made peace with and who I counted as a friend). On hand to pace a friend he expected in a bit, Steve sort of took charge along with my other pacer and friend Erin Kelman (who finished ES100 in 2016 in record heat, weather and just generally speaking total shit conditions). Their combined experience and positive energy kept the wheels from falling off and prevented me from dropping right then and there. I suggested I wanted to do the math to see if I still had a shot of even making the cutoffs and Steve immediately told me not to do any math until the morning. It was exactly the kind of thing I needed to hear to keep going.
But it wasn’t enough. Turns out, nothing I could have done was going to be enough. It would take almost five hours to travel the next 11 miles. My knee was the size of a grapefruit and even on the rare climb and rarer flat, I couldn’t bend the joint and get any kind of momentum. The descents were exponentially worse. I took each step like a geriatric stepping on marbles in ice skates. I could not descend at all and unluckily for me, this section was by far the hardest descent of the race.
It was also my lowest emotional point.
I fell into a dip into a pit of psychic darkness it would take me weeks to emerge from.
Close your eyes and picture the thing in life you want most.
(Note: This should be impossible for an emotionally healthy adult. You’re supposed to want a lot of different things and pursue as many as you can, effectively, with vigor. So assume you can’t single out one particular thing you want most and close your eyes and picture the thing in life you want most right in this moment.)
Now. Imagine that thing in life you want most right now is impossible. Quite suddenly and totally. It will never happen and no amount of wanting, no amount of willing or wishing will provide for you to have it.
Math was never my strong suit, but I knew between mile 58 and 60 that my race was over and, therefore, the thing in life I wanted most right then in that moment, was not going to become reality. I was doing damage to my knee, possibly irrevocably, and I would time out around mile 95 at my current pace of less than 2 miles an hour.
Could I rally and eek out a barely sub-36 hour finish? I considered it during and since and have come to the conclusion that even if there was a 5% chance of finishing, that 5% contained a 100% chance that I would do everlasting and profound damage to my body.
I was not willing to forfeit the things in life I would want most later.
As I walked into the aid station at mile 63, I saw my wife Leah. She didn’t have to say a word. I knew she knew that I knew that it was over. The way she looked at me and the way she held me convinced me that the choice I was about to make was the right one. No less difficult. No less heartbreaking. But right.
It was over.
A medic examined my knee and said something to the effect of, “I’m not sure what compelled you to keep going with the knee in this condition.”
In 18 hours and 40 something minutes on course that day, before quitting near Midnight on August 13, 2017, I never, ever doubted why I kept going. I kept going because I wanted to finish.
I found myself injured, beaten and broken. I had placed so much energy and intention into this race. It was the culmination of so much work and focus and it was ruined by a simple, silly, careless error in footing. It was a cruel joke.
We went back to our rental and drank scotch and talked and I tried not to feel embarrassed sitting in a room full of people who expected me to accomplish the goal I had set for myself.
Leaving town the next day, Leah and I drove to the finish line so that I could collect my drop bags. I almost left them, ashamed and sad and not wanting to see the smiling faces at the finish line festivities. But we went and I’m glad we did. It was the lid on the box, the end of the journey. Obviously not what I envisioned, but important to see in any event. I even got to watch a finisher cross the line.
What struck me was that she didn’t look nearly as happy as I thought I would be.
I went home and began the process of recovery. I did not appreciate at the time that it would not be quick. There was a price to pay for this failure, and I was only beginning to make the requisite outlay.
RECOVERY - WEEK ONE
The ego is taking quite the hit. I went from expecting I would complete this course in twenty five hours or less to an also-ran DNF on the day this race had - possibly - the best conditions it will ever have. I completely took for granted that I'd finish and I feel more than a little stupid in retrospect. I put a a lot of eggs in the ES100 basket and they all got cracked. I’m more and more confident of the moral victory, but doubts linger. My knee is in pain and I try to stay off of it.
I have no illusions about my ability to run but irrespective of the relative risks of further damage. I don’t run not because I'm worried about my broken body, but because I can't overcome by broken heart.
I’m still questioning, on some level, whether or not I could have finished.
I’m busted and I hope a week or two off will set me straight.
RECOVERY - WEEK TWO
My job takes me to Los Angeles for the week and I’m on my feet ten to twelve hours. I stretch and ice and call room service and take it easy best I can when I’m not on the clock.
The race now exists in an increasingly hazy past. My observations and memory have begun to be clouded, annotated and reformatted by analysis. The race is now in the past and I exist in a state of uncertain recovery so with the benefit of insight, I know certain things to be true about race day:
One - I knew my race was over when I fell and I just didn’t listen to my better senses. This kind of fall is rare for me. It’s easily the worst fall and most debilitating injury I’ve ever had while running. On the other hand. had never DNFed before. I expected hardship. The exercise was seeking it. I assumed the damaged knee and 60% output were surmountable. Arrogance and pride clouded a decision that, for basic reasons of safety and longevity alone, should have been easy.
Two - There was no reason I should have fallen. It was sloppy footwork plain and simple - inexcusable in a training setting and unfuckingbelievable to me in a race setting. I wasn't focused and in this game, at this level, if you aren't focused you will fail. Lesson learned.
Three - My hiking game was strong and I was physical enough for the course. I felt good most of the day and without injury I think I was ready to do something special.
Four - None of that matters.
The only concern is to get healthy. The pain in my knee and especially the pain in my heart.
RECOVERY - WEEK THREE
I consider this - my Eastern States 100 experience was an unequivocal failure. I await the results of an MRI, anticipating that I may need another 4 weeks or even possibly months to recover from this injury.
I am stewing about what I could have done better/differently/more efficiently in the hope of an alternate and more positive outcome. I find none and no solace in imaginary happy endings.
RECOVERY - WEEK FOUR
Confirmed that I have a “longitudinal tear posterior horn medial meniscus.” Three more weeks without running and probably four months from being able to train again at the volume and intensity prior to Eastern States. All-in-all, this might set me back six months to a year in terms of pure fitness. If this crucible reveals deeper wisdom that leads to commensurate longevity, I'll be grateful but the future is uncertain.
KIRK How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn't you say?