Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Photo Credit: Didler Lanne
Just the other day I re-read my JFK 50 race report.  Reading that report floods my mind with a plethora of fond memories.  It was a magical day.  It was near perfect.  It changed my life.  No, really, it changed my life!  The funny thing about change though, is that it needs to continue.  You can't settle, you have to keep moving, pushing, and striving.  You have to continue to CHANGE.  We change seasons, we change clocks, we change jobs, we change where we live, but most importantly we change ourselves.  Change can be a scary thing though.  It opens us up to the great unknown, forces us out of the beloved comfort zone, and beckons us to take a risk. 

If change is so necessary though, why does it instill such fear?  Well, that's easy.  It often comes down to a single word…FAILURE.  Like it or not many of us are afraid to change because we are afraid to fail.  That dream job that we've been thinking about chasing, that college application for our "reach school", that pretty girl who lives across town, very rarely will such things come to fruition if we don't act on them.  And so at times we must throw caution to the wind, pull up the anchor, and set sail on a voyage of change, even if it threatens to push us off the edge (of the World).  Are such actions crazy?  Perhaps.  What might be crazier, however, is refusing to try.  After all, the explorers of old already proved that the Earth isn't flat.  Worst comes to worst you'll probably just circle back around with a few cuts, bruises (and scurvy), and possibly an even greater desire to try it again (Side note…circling back around might take a while.  Trust me, I've been out there.  There's an awful lot of, well, not much.).

Photo Credit: Didler Lanne
Amongst all of the changes, however, there are those things which remain, those things that need not changing.  This includes things such as our morals, our faith, and the very core of who we are.  Such things serve as a sort of personalized compass, an absolute North.  They guide us, direct us, and help us to stay the course in our pursuit of change.  Do they prevent us from failure?  No!  But they give us something to return to, something to hold onto when all else is falling apart.  They drive us, they inspire us, and when necessary, they catch us, reminding us that failure is oftentimes an agent of change.

Looking back at my most recent race (a forty-something mile ultra-marathon in France), I can't help but think about how this pursuit of change applies to what happened.  And so we take a look at the race, the motivation, the strategy (or lack thereof), the execution, and the end result.  In regards to motivation, people often ask me why I run.  It's a valid question, no doubt, for I spend a great deal of my time doing it.  But perhaps an equally important question is why I race.  Is it for attention, money, a need to feel successful?  Is it for the opportunity to travel to and explore a new place?  Or is it because it's what the sponsors want?  While all such reasons can contribute, none of them are my primary reason.  So what is my reason (or reasons)?  Perhaps the answer to this is found in my pre-race rituals.  No, I'm not talking about applying spit to my shoe laces (a trick I learned from Coach Dave Hummel back in high school).  What I'm talking about is a prayer that I say before the gun goes off.  It's simple, but I pray that my race will be glorifying to God.  Now, is this my sole reason for racing?  No, but I would be lying if I said I didn't want to glorify God with this gift that he has given me.  So back to the whole glorifying God thing...how does one do that?  How does a human being manage to glorify God?

Photo Credit: Didler Lanne
As difficult as that might seem, I think it's really quite simple.  God has blessed us all with different gifts and I think it brings honor to him when we use those gifts to the best of our ability.  Does this mean that we have to win every race that we enter?  No.  What it does mean is that we give it our all while competing with honor, integrity, and good sportsmanship.  I like to think that it means we run until there is nothing left.  From gun to tape we give it everything we've got, pushing all the way through the line until we are so broken that we can barely stand.  Note that I said we push through the line, not run through it.  Preferably you WILL run through it, but sometimes, when you've done it right, it's more of a crawl.  If that doesn't make sense, watch the video of my finish at Le Templiers…you'll understand.  And for the record, I thought I was at least sort of running when I came through the finish.  Oh how very wrong I was…that was a walk…with an excessive amount of arm movement.  Let's just call it a march.  It sounds better that way.

Now I know what some of you might be thinking.  "Oh, Zach didn't win, so now he's just acting like winning doesn't matter, painting this fake picture of success because he blew up and finished 5th."  But that's not it.  I love winning, and by golly gee wilikers I sure wanted to win Les Templiers.  Don't get me wrong, I am very proud of my effort at Les Templiers, but I'm still human, I'm still competitive.  A part of me still kicks myself for messing up the nutrition (I should have had more to eat and drink.  How did I mess that up?  I'm Dan Miller's son…I love to eat!) and falling apart in the final miles.  But, do I regret going out like I did?  Of course not!  Running like that was a blast!  I loved going out fast and running down Ricky Lightfoot on the first climb.  I loved cruising the fire roads with Ricky and Chris Vargo, spooking the birds from the trees, watching the orange/pink glow of the sunrise, and trying to keep up with the Europeans on the first technical downhill (OK, maybe that part was a bit nerve-wracking). 

Photo Credit: Nico Raybaud
Zipping through the quaint French town at the first aid station was a rush!  The streets were lined with SO many people cheering me on as I took off in pursuit of the leader (he was about 100m in front of me).  Having ditched my headlamp (actually it was my roommate, Brandon Stapanowich's headlamp…thanks Brandon!) I ran nice and steady up the climb out of town.  The guy leading the race was alternating between power hiking and running and it wasn't long before I passed him.  Having regained the lead I pushed onward.  With a runner hot on my heals I kept things rolling pretty good.  We went up, down, and around on some really cool forest trails.  Eventually I reached for a VFuel gel.  Opting to switch flavors, I reached for another and ended up dropping one on the ground.  Not wanting to litter, I turned around to pick it up.  Both gels in hand, I stuffed the one in my pack and ate the other.  Shortly after eating the gel (I think) we came across a group of people blocking the trail.  A quick beep of the emergency alarm on my awesome 300 Lumin Nathan Sports Zephyr Fire 300 hand-light and they got out of the way.  Soon we ran into an old stone building in the middle of the woods.  Upon entering I didn't know which way to go.  Fortunately the guy running behind me pointed me in the correct direction, thereby clearing up my confusion.  A quick turn left, then right, and we were on our way. 

Shortly after exiting the church(?) I started to pull away.  Coming into the second aid station I was in first place with just a small gap back to 2nd.  I was in such a rush to get out of the aid station that I ripped my Nathan hand light right off my hand.  I thought I might have broken it (the light, not my hand), but as it turns out, I just undid the Velcro (Velcro…good thinking Nathan!).  Having ditched my Nathan Firecatcher pack I pulled on a fresh one and took off (Note: Pennsylvania's Nathan Sports supplied me with five Firecatcher packs and tons of hand bottles and hydration bladders for this race so that I could go "crewless" and still get in and out of aid stations nice and fast.  Thanks so much Nathan for your great products and wonderful support/service!  Pennsylvania proud!).  Fearing that second place had passed me during transition I asked a spectator if anyone was in front of me.  Fortunately he told me that I was leading (side note: When racing internationally, the language barrier can add a whole new element to things.  Communication just isn't as easy.  Thank goodness for body language!).  Tearing off through the countryside I nearly missed a turn.  Fortunately I noticed it at the last minute.  Crisis averted, I continued on.  Diving into a set of switchbacks, I descended to a flat section before embarking on a relatively steep climb up to a ridge.  Running across the ridge, I encountered some pretty cool rock formations, including a rock arch (think less Utah arch and more giant hole). 

Reaching for the back of the "pain cave".  Photo Credit: Guilhem Prax
Part way down the descent from the ridge I noticed that I had some (French) company behind me.  Continuing to lead, I slid out on a switchback and got passed.  Fortunately it didn't cost me much time and I was soon right on the heals of said Frenchman.  Shortly after crossing the road I found my opening and regained the lead.  For a while I ran with the Frenchman right on my heals, but then it struck me.  Don't settle and run down to his level.  Run your race!  Make him work for it if he wants to keep up.  And with that I took off.  Up the steep embankment and onto the road we went.  Weaving through the traffic and into the town, I started to pull away.  As always, navigating the narrow streets and stairs in the town was a blast.  As I exited the town, Gill, the race director, asked if I wanted water.  Declining his offer I turned onto a bridge and threw in a bit of a surge as I crossed the river.  Reaching the other side, I embarked on yet another climb.  The climb was quite fun as there were several spectators scattered along the route.  Trying to increase the gap back to second place, I kept my foot on the gas.  Eventually I lost sight of second and that made me feel much better.  

Coming into the third aid station (45k I believe), I spotted Bryon Powell of irunfar.com.  Bryon was quite excited and told me that I was crushing it!  Feeling good, I swapped out my Nathan Firecatcher pack for a new one and surged out of the aid station.  Given that I had 13 miles until the next aid station, it was very important that I get some calories and fluids into my system.  Heading down the trail I gulped a VFuel gel, munched a banana, and sucked down some Powerade.  Fortunately this 13 mile section proved to be one of the most scenic parts of the race.  As we climbed and descended we were treated to sweeping views of the gorge and glimpses of the magnificent bridge that we had been admiring earlier in the week.  Part way through this section we encountered a fairly technical area in which the trail was far less obvious and littered with rocks.  It was at this point that I ran off trail and ended up at a bunch of cave-esque rocks.  Feeling that I had made a mistake, I backtracked and quickly found the trail (I had only ran about 15 meters out of the way).  Plunging down another descent I was surprised once again when I noticed two Frenchman hot on my heals.  Not liking that I had been caught, I took off.  Fortunately we entered another climb and I was able to get some separation.  As I neared the top of the climb I spotted Gill and he told me that I was running the perfect race.  Cresting the climb, I ran through a field, re-entered the woods and was soon heading downhill.  Not wanting to get caught, I tried to keep a good pace on the downhill.  At the bottom of the descent I transitioned onto a road.  Looking back over my shoulder, I couldn't see anyone.  This was a good sign!  Still feeling pretty good, I sped across the bridge, ran through the town, and powered into the climb.  The first bit of the climb was littered with fans and I fed off their energy as they cheered me on (it was fantastic!).  Sometimes I would even get people running along in front of or behind me with a camera.

Photo Credit: Guilhem Prax
As I climbed higher and higher I kept waiting for the aid station to appear.  Despite my efforts the climb drug on and on…and on.  Finally, after what seemed like too long, the aid station came into view.  This final aid station was approximately 7k (about 4.5 miles) from the finish and this is where I made a BIG mistake.  I needed water and food, but I had only packed one gel and 12oz of plain water in my pack awaiting me at the final aid station.  What I should have done was kept the pack that I had on and just grabbed an 18oz Nathan hand-held (I had one in my aid station box).  This probably would have been fine since I still had 2 gels (containing a total of about 75mg of caffeine) and an entire Enduro Bar (400 calories) in the pack that I had just come into the aid station with.  Unfortunately I stuck with my plan, ditched the pack, and picked up the new one.  After squirting myself with the hand bottle I threw it back in the box, grabbed a cup of some random yellow liquid at the aid table, and left.  Running down the trail I realized that my pack straps weren't routed correctly.  I managed to fix them on the fly but it probably slowed me down a little.  Oh well, I was about to encounter MUCH bigger problems.  For starters, my hands went all tingly…I know that feeling from training and it's NOT good…BAD SENSATIONS!  I sucked down my only VFuel, thinking that I had another.  I also drank all of my water quite quickly.  Struggling on the technical downhill, the Frenchman caught me (probably about 3-4 miles from the finish).  He stayed behind me for a brief moment, and then blew right on by.  I didn't have much of a response (if any).  Coming out of the descent we hit a flatter section as we skirted along the side of the mountain.  I think it was around this point that my hands started to come around and my body (may have) made a slight turn for the better.  Any such improvements, however, were short lived as I was approaching a killer steep climb to the peak.  I was struggling to run and clawing at the rocks with my hands.  I pushed and pushed but my body was fading fast.  The needle was dipping below the empty line and the gas light was nearly on!  I was in BIG trouble.  Nonetheless, I got to the top of the climb about 2-3 minutes behind the leader and was somehow holding onto second.  I was grateful to see Ricky Lightfoot at the top cheering me on (Ricky is a World Champion and he had duked it out with me for the first 12 miles of the race before eventually dropping out).  After the race Ricky told me that at the top he thought that I might catch the leader before the finish as I was one of the only ones still running up that section (to be honest I'm not sure how much running I was actually doing on that climb). 

Head up...I'm gonna finish this thing!  Photo Credit: Guilhem Prax
Once I came off the rocks towards the top of the climb, I still had to run across a grass slope and up a small nub.  On one side of the nub was a set of stairs.  On the other side was a sidewalk type thing.  I thought to myself that if I went left it would be like the Manitou Incline and if I went right it wouldn't.  I went right.  I crested the hill and dove into the downhill.  Running downhill on a body that dead is hard to do, and as I went it got worse and worse.  My calves were on the verge of cramping and my body just did not want to go.  My heart wanted so badly to move faster, but my gas tank (calories) was drained.  With about one to one and a half miles to go I got passed by the second Frenchman.  At this point the trail rolled slightly and we climbed up to a cave.  Inside the cave there was a lady.  She asked me if I spoke French and I said no.  Apparently I was still capable of answering questions.  She guided me through the cave with a small light.  I thought that perhaps I was supposed to take the light so I kept trying to grab it from her, but she wouldn't let go!  Within a few seconds I was through the cave and on my way.  A short while later, with probably about a half mile to a mile to go Alex Nichols came tearing by.  He looked dazed and tired but the dude was moving!  He went on to secure a HUGE come from behind third place (podium) finish!  Huge props to Alex for what he did.  Everyone thinks it takes guts to race up front, but it also takes guts to race from behind!  It can be nerve racking to be way back in the pack where you can't see the leaders.  So once again, HUGE props to Alex for a job well done!

Thibaut Baronian's video of my "march" to the finish was a hit on Facebook.
Shortly after Alex passed me, Sage Canaday came whizzing by.  Sage encouraged me, telling me that I was almost there.  Such encouragement is the sign of a true competitor!  Hats off to Sage for that!  Sage also did a good job of hanging in there and not giving up.  His fourth place finish was key to our team's success (we won the men's competition!).  Soon after Sage flew by someone yelled that I had about 500m to go.  Though I was trying really hard to get to the finish line, I was pretty much walking (perhaps I was completely walking).  When I heard 500 to go I decided to try and force myself into more of a running motion.  Surprisingly, I was able to change my stride.  And to be honest, I really thought I was at least sort of running.  That is until I watched  a video of myself coming into the finish.  Oh how wrong I was!  I watched that video and I am walking!  I might be moving my arms as if I am running, but trust me, I'm walking!  If you don't believe me, check it out for yourself (it's on my Facebook page).  In fact, it was so ugly that Alex Nichols wasn't sure I was going to make it across the little speed-bump type thing that they set up at the finish line.  Yeah, it was that bad! 

Fortunately I did make it across the finish line where I was greeted by both Alex and Sage.  Collapsing onto their shoulders, they kindly helped me to the medical tent.  I didn't really need medical attention.  I just needed a seat, water, calories, and electrolytes.  Within a few minutes I was handed a bunch of water and some sort of flavored drink.  I downed it in a flash and exited the tent immediately.  Within a matter of minutes I was doing WAY better.  Of course I did have the chills, but after eating some food and downing several cups of the smoothie drink they had at the post-race drink station it cleared up.  Feeling much better, I joined Vargo, Nichols, and Jodee Adams-Moore at the finish where we cheered in Matt Flaherety (Matt may or may not have crossed the line holding hands with another guy in the race…when in France, haha).  Matt, who is a fantastic runner, specializes in racing on fairly runnable terrain.  With the long climbs and technical sections found in this race, Matt really had his work cut out for him.  Nonetheless he stuck it out and finished.  Way to go dude!  He might be the only one of us who can tell you how the cheese, soup, and beer tasted at the aid station.  And while I'm at it, I gotta commend Chris Vargo for his gutsy start.  Vargo and I were running together early on in the race.  We were both up there at the front, even running side-by-side at times.  Unfortunately things didn't go his way and he dropped, but who doesn't love a guy whose willing to throw down early and give it a shot?

Thanks guys!  Photo Credit: Christophe Rochotte
Having said all of this, one of the greatest things of all were the French fans.  From the crowds at the start line, to the streams of spectators in the towns, to those scattered along the climbs and gathered at the finish, the French fans were spectacular!  You couldn't help but feel that they had a true appreciation and love for the sport.  In fact, it was as if they loved my colossal meltdown about as much as (or more than) the rest of my race.  This was made evident by a series of comments that were posted online.  One of my favorite comments was by Benoit Nave, who said "Alors lui, s'il avait couru juste un tout petit peu avec sa tête, il aurait gagné "haut la main " ! Mais il a couru juste avec son cœur ... Mais vraiment tout son cœur !"  According to the internet, this translates to "Then he, if it ran just a tiny bit with his head, he would have won "hands down"! But he ran just with his heart... But really all his heart!"  Thanks Benoit, your words mean so much!  Perhaps the French have a true understanding of taking a risk, giving it your all, and not being afraid to fail!  It is my hope that this attitude be the spirit of the the NIKE Trail Elite Team, and people in general.  May we all have the guts to lay it all out there, even if it threatens to end in a #NIKEfail, 'cause in my book, sometimes a #NIKEfail is the greatest success of all!  In the words of T.S. Eliot, "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go."

I wore a buff for the first time in this race.  Am I doing it right?  Thanks NIKE!
Finally, I would like to extend a bit of thanks to all those who have supported me.  Thanks to my Mom, Dad, (3) sisters, family, and friends.  Thanks to those who have coached me along the way (middle school, high school, and college).  Thanks to the French for  being such wonderful hosts.  Thanks to Gill for organizing the race and Christophe for doing the athlete coordination.  Thanks to all fans and supporters, especially those who cheered me on during the race and/or sent me kind messages after the race.  And finally, thanks to NIKE for supplying me with awesome gear, VFuel for giving me a bunch of gels, Enduro Bites for providing tasty, natural Enduro Bites, Mrs. Canaday for getting me a bunch of Powerade, and Mr. Nichols for buying me a whole bunch of BANANAS (where would I be without those?).

Thanks NIKE, Nathan, Enduro, and VFuel!
And for those wondering what's next, it will be the World 100k Championships on November 21st in Qatar!  Here's to running 20x5k loops in heat and humidity.  Adventure?  I think so!

Best start line yet! 

Race Recap