Friday, November 30, 2012

Taking Risks

Do truly great things happen only when we take risks? Can great things happen when we play it safe?

Anne and I have been watching a fascinating docu-drama series on the History Channel, "The Men Who Built America," that profiles industrial titans John D. Rockefeller (oil), J.P. Morgan (finance/electricity/steel), Henry Ford (automobile), Cornelius Vanderbilt (railroads) and Andrew Carnegie (steel). A continuing theme in the various episodes is that these men, who weren't angels by any means (they were later demonized as "robber barons"), took huge risks and ultimately, through successes and failures, achieved empires, the likes of which we've never seen since.

Anyway, it's gotten me to thinking about risk-taking in running. Do you have to take risks to achieve something personally great?

I've been known to occasionally go out hard in races and training runs. I've had my "gunslinger" moments. There was one race in particular where I took a big risk and it resulted, depending on your outlook, in success and failure.

On June 21, 2008, a day after my thirty-fifth birthday, I lined up for the Mohican Trail 100-Mile Run, a hilly race on beautiful single-track trails and dirt roads in Mohican State Park between Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio. Fresh off a new marathon PR, I was in killer shape, having run 100-110 miles a week for months leading up to the race. I was lean, fast, healthy and confident. Unfortunately, I was also tired. Our son, Noah, came into the world six weeks earlier, and he wasn't sleeping well, meaning we weren't sleeping well..... But, standing at the start of Mohican, I didn't feel tired. I was determined to win this race! I genuinely believed no one out there could beat me--mentally or physically.

When the gun went off at 5:00 a.m., I exploded out of the gate. I ran my ass off, holding second place for the first 52 miles. But, in my mind, I was really running first. See, the guy in front of me--a fast dude from California--had gone out too fast the year before and crashed. He was doing the same thing again, and so I knew I'd eventually reel in this sucker and take the lead. Finally, as I entered the Rock Point aid station at mile 52, there he sat totally wasted. Leaving Rock Point, I had the lead, believing in my heart this was my race to win. No one could stop me! Bitch!

Well, at about mile 60, as I was on 16-hour pace (which is pretty aggressive for the Mohican course), my left knee started going south. But that wasn't the only problem; I was getting tired! Going up a long hill to get to the Fire Tower aid station, I got passed by the eventual winner, Jay Smithberger, who was looking great. Jay's one of those badasses who starts conservatively and quietly and gets stonger. He runs his own race and doesn't worry about others. That's why he's a great runner who has many wins on his resume.

Amazingly, the dude I passed at Rock Point eventually caught back up to me. By then I was hobbling along on a shot knee and completely pissed off as I played leap frog with him for several miles. In the midst of all of that, I ate some pizza at the mile 80 Covered Bridge aid station and my stomach didn't like all. Not only did I have a blown knee, but also a massive case of diarrhea (I've never eaten pizza in a race since).

Limping along, I persevered, even as I got passed by an Irish dude and was now "running" fourth. I'd gone from a beastly 16-hour pace at mile 60 to now trying to break 20 hours--hell, even finish this sucker. But I refused to give in. I limped along and had to take really awful potty breaks quite often, but I kept going. I owe a lot to my pacers, Kenny and Ted, who watched over me. Finally, after getting some Pepto in me at mile 90, I finished in 19:22, a pretty good time. My knee took two months to come back after that race.

I often wonder if I'd have won that race if my knee hadn't blown up. Going out hard in a tough 100-miler was a big risk, but I was in fantastic shape and super confident and didn't really think in terms of risk/benefit. In the end, of course I didn't win. But the experience definitely crafted me into a better runner (or did it?) and laid the groundwork for my win at the next year's Mohican 100--to date, the best race I've ever run.

For the past few years I've debated within my own mind the merits and risks of aggressive racing. If you go out hard, maybe you'll be able to hang on and achieve a time you didn't think was possible. Guys like Eric Clifton and Mike Morton have made careers out of this approach, but they've also had their spectacular crashes. In 2004, Matt Carpenter crashed and burned big-time at the Leadville 100, only to come back the next year and set one of the stoutest records in the history of the sport. But we don't really think about their crashes, do we? Even mere mortals like me have seen amazing personal results from aggressive running--be it a new PR, an age-group win, even an overall win.

If you take risks, maybe you'll discover that your limits are far beyond what you'd originally perceived. By the same token, you also risk spectacular failure; you might crash and burn. You're then probably faced with shattered confidence. If you go out conservatively, there's a chance you'll benefit in the latter miles and gain strength when others are fading. That's what people call "smart racing." But there's also the chance you will have fallen short of your potential. Many, including myself, would say falling short of your potential is a tragedy.

At the 2008 Mohican, I don't think I consciously decided to go out hard and see what I could do. My only goal was to win, and it didn't hurt that I had good bulletin board material from some pre-race smack-talking back in Cleveland. That was my second-ever 100-miler. I think I went out hard because: A) I was in great shape and B) I didn't know any better. Looking back on my running life, I realize the 2008 Mohican, when I ran with guns blazing, was my last race as a "kid." The experience made me grow up and actually reflect more on how I raced and on the challenge of 100 miles. Maybe that's a bad thing. I mean, maybe racing recklessly and saying "screw you" to the risk of going hard is the way to go. I don't know any great achievements that have come from playing it safe. Do you?

Maybe that's why the 2012 Leadville 100 has left such a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't go out hard, and yet I still crashed and burned and DNF'd because of an injury. If I'd gone out guns blazing and crashed and burned, maybe I could live with a DNF. To say I'm ready for the 2013 race to get here would be an understatement. What I'm now doing--I mean, dealing with a DNF and using it as motivation for the next race is, after all, a process--is getting the motivation back in me. What happened in 2012 might shatter some folks for good, but for me it's the ultimate bulletin board material. Failure pisses me off. Big time. It was an epic personal failure--an experience that brought me face to face with my own demons. It made me confront, deep within my own soul where most folks NEVER venture because it's dark and murky and scary down there, why I do this sport and whether I want to continue with it. Driving away from Winfield after DNF'ing, I'd decided to "retire" for good--yeah, screw you, Leadville!--only to "unretire" the next day. That moment in Winfield, with Hardrock 100 champ Diana Finkel hovering over me and offering encouragement as I laid on the ground next to the tent with a blasted knee and defeated heart, was a moment that had been brewing for a (long) while, and my knee brought me to it in a big way. For me, that moment had to happen.

It was the best thing that ever happened to me as a runner.

Will I go hard in 2013 like I did at the 2011 Leadville, potentially paying for it in the end but still finishing with a good time? Or will I run "smart"? Who knows.... I gotta figure that out. Honestly, I just want to finish again in under 25 hours!

What works for you--aggressive racing, or going at it conservatively?

Further reading:
  • Mohican 2008 report here.
  • Mohican 2008 reflections here.


  1. Frankly, the all in strategy nearly never works for me. Like ever. Unless by works we mean showing me how bad I can jack up a race in the second half.

    But yup, whether it is right or not is all about the goal. You can't go all in unless you realize it might mean you can lose. Otherwise it ain't all in.

  2. GZ: I do think the elevation we have here in CO is a huge factor. At sea level, you can run way more aggressively from the start and maybe be able to hang on and stay strong. But at big elevations, like what you have at Leadville, Hardrock and PPM, going out aggressively might blow up in the face later on. That said, if you train right and on the course, then it's a gamble maybe worth taking?