Laying It All Out There

AJWs TaproomOver the past week or so the video footage of Brian Morrison’s finish at Western States in 2006 has been making the rounds on Facebook. I give Brian a lot of credit for posting the video and for continuing to accept responsibility for the situation as it unfolded on that hot June night over five years ago. In the aftermath of that race I had the opportunity to speak with Brian a couple times and he acknowledged, openly and repeatedly, that he left it all out there on that day and, in the end, just ran out of gas. It was a gut wrenching situation for all involved and I recall, at the time, thinking about how we all needed to learn from it. Unfortunately, I am not sure we all have.

I remember the day well as it was the hottest and most oppressive WS100 in my memory. After some sloppy snow in the High Country the temperatures kept going up and up and up. I encountered my good friend Tommy Nielsen as we were leaving Last Chance and we ran much of the canyons together basically throwing our splits out the window and acknowledging that it would be more of a survival test than a race. During the day we heard reports about the battle up front between Brian, Graham Cooper and Jim Huffman and we were listening in awe as news of their insane splits filtered through the course. In the end, we all know what happened, and it is interested to think about what has evolved since.

I know for me, personally, I had my own wake-up call in the 2004 Angeles Crest 100 when I succumbed to acute renal failure after the race and spent seven days and nights in the hospital. Thirty-six liters of sodium bicarbonate later, I pledged to never put myself into that kind of anguish again. The subsequent result of what I learned in that race was a second place finish in the 2005 Western States 100 and a clear understanding of the limits of my own physical abilities. I realized then what I know clearly now that while we have limits physically we have boundless potential mentally, emotionally, and psychologically. It is in those three areas that I feel ultrarunners must focus their energies.

Which brings me to a reflection on the five years since Brian’s painful finish. Have we learned from it? Well, a look across the ultra landscape would suggest maybe, maybe not. Sure, thanks to Marty Hoffman, Lisa Bliss, Sunny Blende, and other medical professionals we know a lot more about what keeps people out of trouble in 100 mile races and what kinds of things cause life-threatening damage to runners pushing the envelope. In talking to other veterans of the sport, I must say that we can’t help but notice the increasing number of runners who need significant treatment after 100 mile races. From IV’s to emergency room visits to months on the couch, the number of issues resulting from runners pushing their limits too far seems to keep going up.

I wonder why this is? Is it increased competition? A new attitude of invincibility among runners? The increased accessibility to the 100 mile distance? Some combination of factors? I’m not sure. But, what I do know is that ending up in the hospital after a 100 mile race is no badge of courage and boasting about a high CPK count is not only mis-guided but also downright dangerous. I don’t pretend to know all the answers nor do I mean to suggest that something is wrong. But, that being said, I worry about the future of our formerly fringe sport when these kinds of events get increasing coverage and the potential glorification of such painful realities becomes the norm.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What are your thoughts on people pushing themselves past their limits in ultramarathons?
  • Are such efforts an unavoidable byproduct of our sport or anathema to it?
  • Are there examples of when such efforts have advanced the boundaries of the sport?
  • What do you think of AJW’s possible explanation for his observed increase in such events?
  • Have you ever pushed yourself past your boundaries? If so, have you embraced such an effort or have your vowed to change your ways? On the latter point, how have you changed?

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Green Flash West Coast IPAWest Coast IPA from the Green Flash Brewery in Southern California.

Quoth the barkeep, “This smooth IPA features just the right blend of hops and spice providing the perfect recovery drink after a crisp autumnal trail run.”

There are 26 comments

  1. Phill

    Didn't know about Brian before but Well done to his team for cutting the race short and saving his life. It's not about the last 100 metres but the journey along the way!

  2. Dan Rose

    I think the increase in media coverage of races that involve post-race hospitalization like with Brian can actually have a positive overall affect on fellow runners. In 2009, I had the honor of wearing the Red, White, and Blue for the first time in my life at the 24 Hour World Championships in France. I had hammered myself into top form in the months leading up to the race, and 12 hours into it I was on pace for a PR of over 150 miles. Very early in the race I had a couple hours of random vomiting that left me fighting dehydration all day, but when I finally had the need to hit the bathroom around mile 80 I figured I'd caught up on fluids and was set for a strong night of running. Then I saw what came out of me: I was urinating blood for the first time in my life. In the dark of that Port-a-John, only I knew what was happening, and being on the stage of the World Championships, I'll admit there were a couple seconds when I thought "No one else needs to know about this. I can keep running and deal with it after the race.". I didn't want to let my team down, or my family, or even the folks following the race back in the US who I'd never met. What helped me make the toughest decision I've ever had to make in a race was the recollection of renal-failure tales from Brian, AJW, Erik Scaggs, etc.. I didn't want to end up in a French hospital for a week trying to regain kidney function. Thanks to the honesty and accessibility of those runners, I did the right thing and went to the Medical tent on my next lap. Sure enough, on a scale of 1 to 10, my urine tested a solid "10" and I was pulled from the race. Who knows if I'll ever get another chance to race for my country on that stage again, but even if I never do, I have ZERO regrets for doing the right thing by heading to the Medical tent that night. Running ultras is amazingly rewarding and fulfilling, but the rest of Life is as well.

    1. Art

      "Running ultras is amazingly rewarding and fulfilling, but the rest of Life is as well".

      absolutely yes.

      Since I am no where near a front runner, its all about the "fun".

      For me, it's recreation, not life or death.

      I call myself the 90% guy, though I sometimes approach 95%.

      1. Bryon Powell

        Art, I'm with you in the 90, maybe 95% category. I'm happy if I enjoy most of a long ultra and only reach 90% of my potential. I train hard to enjoy a greater portion of that 90% effort.

  3. Trail Clown

    I remember when I wanted to break 3 hours in the marathon so I asked Bryon (when he was back in the DC area) if I could train with him and Michael Wardian. I thought, "I can't seem to break that time with my own training strategies, so I'll just get faster by osmosis". Bryon warned me beforehand, but out I went and ran about 8 miles at what was a leisurely training pace for them. I was dying at mile 7, and had to tell them to go on without me, and I walked the rest of the way home. My Brian Morrison moment. I staggered in the front door and my wife looked at me like I was drunk. Never did break 3 hours (ran 3:10 at Boston that year), and finally realized the osmosis theory doesn't quite work. But I do think, in answer to Bryon's call for comments about pushing boundaries, that we're more likely to do it in the presence of others? Was Jurek pushing Morrison too hard on that day as his pacer?

  4. George Zack

    I wince at the thought that we'd blame pacers. We are each individually accountable there. I don't know Brian at all, but I am willing to bet he'd say that where he went that day was his choice.

    1. Trail Clown

      Ya, I just kind of meant that Jurek was his coach/pacer and probably kept up a good pace, and Brian maybe just kept going and going without saying anything. I mean, how the heck do you collapse like that without there being alot of warning signs beforehand? We are each accountable but if you're mind/body is fried, you don't make good decisions. And I'm saying that if Brian is out there alone, he probably doesn't get to that point where he would just collapse…he would've slowed down. But maybe I'm wrong on that. Anyway, I wasn't trying to blame the pacer, just trying to see if the pacer dynamics played a part.

  5. Roland

    This sort of thing is all a part of sport whether in endurance events or not. Each challenge has diffuse boundaries between excellence and disaster. Given the increasing number of competitors in the 100 mile distance, the probability of this occurring is obviously higher so we may see more of it, but perhaps not a higher rate of occurrence.

    As far as such efforts "advancing the boundaries of the sport", I should think that individual tests of an athlete's limits is part and parcel of the entire enterprise of competition. Going too far is a construct of both unknowingness and probability given the specific circumstance. But, without such efforts, no matter how incrementally small, competition is non-existent and therefore these efforts are essential to any sport. Systematic training, physiological education, and technology can play a major role with minimization of such events (particularly for the average participant) but this will also enable yet another, slightly higher, level of performance, the edge of which will inevitably be tested.

  6. Wes

    Yeah, yeah, yeah…Brian M and running and all that…but *I* want to comment on the MOST important part of AJW's post: The beer selection: West Coast IPA from Green Flash. I gotta agree with this one, though I wish they hadn't gone to a measly 4 pack at virtually the same price as th8e old 6 packs.

    Another good one along the same lines: A Little Sumpin Sumpin from Lagunitas. Mmmm…

  7. eric

    I pushed beyond what I knew were my safe limits at Massanutten 100 this year. While I finished the race, and received many encouraging words about an inspiring finish, I also spent the next 3 days in the hospital with an infection that almost spread to my blood. Laying there, I had lots of time to think about what is really important in my life, my daughter. Never again will I go past what I know to be my safe limits. Unfortunately, this resulted in a Wasatch DNF this year for me, however I stand by my decision to drop from that race because I now know what the potential consequences are.

    My new outlook: no shame in dropping if my health is in danger. My family is infinitely more important to me and I will never do anything to jeapordize being around for them (besides long training runs!).

  8. Trail Clown

    In re: to my comment thread with GZ above, it is interesting to read AJW's comment on April 3, 2009 at 8:38pm (from this Haggin Cup thread that AJW links to) in which AJW says (in re: to AC 2004): "It was a bit like Brian’s experience (from WS 2005) in that I had a pacer pushing me up the hill to Sam Merrill". See AJW agrees with me, the pacer was to blame! :)

  9. George Zack

    We all use all sorts of tricks out there to keep moving, pushing. Most runners I know are pretty damn good liars. But they mostly lie to themselves. "I will never do this again," being perhaps the most common one.

    So we call on motivation in a variety of forms. Including what a pacer provides. But it is not the pacer that makes you go. We are free men.

    1. Trail Clown

      Yeah, my smiley face emoticon shows I agree with you already, but I also agree with your re-stating of it. And in reading Brian's account on the Haggin link, it seems he was a driven dude on that day, to win at all costs. Free man, free fall…wish I had that kind of mojo.

  10. George O

    Awesome determination to finish WS at all costs Brian, congrats! Here are my two cents:

    Endurance sports require more than just a physically strong body, mental toughness and macho type attitude. It requires one to be alert and make sound judgment based on our bodies needs. Are we consuming enough calories?, fluids?, sodium? paying attention to aches and pains and stopping to analyze the issue at hand. Stubbornness should never over shadow sound judgment and smart planning. Pacers are a smart option and should be used whenever possible but ultimately it is the responsibility of the athlete to make critical decisions and the final decision when it comes to continuing or dropping out due to life threatening conditions. If you are NOT capable of thinking clearly or intelligently, then you simply do not belong out on the course ( do I need to explain myself as to why?)

    What are our boundaries and should we continue to push them? Without pushing them, we will never know what our boundaries are. Most of us started this great sport of ultra running with a 50k or 50 miler and way back then we thought that a 50k was brutal and damn near impossible pushing our boundaries beyond our physical limits. Years later we are preparing ourselves for 100 milers and those damn near impossible 50k's are now short training runs.

    There is a reasonable amount of damage that will occur when traveling 100 miles but we can limit it's permanent or even life threatening effect if we plan accordingly and are listen to our bodies. If it's time to drop out of a race, well then it's time to drop out.

    Live to run another day my friends.


  11. Ben Nephew

    George had a number of good points. Here are my thoughts:

    What are your thoughts on people pushing themselves past their limits in ultramarathons?

    I find the stories of people getting into serious trouble saddening. People are injuring themselves, and it may have long term consequences which affect not only their future running, but general health. Most of us have a long term interest in running, so to see that potentially jeopardized is sad.

    Are such efforts an unavoidable byproduct of our sport or anathema to it?

    I don't think they are unavoidable, but these incidents are more likely in harder ultras than in shorter events. In shorter events, you can get away with shutting off the brain and turning into some sort of running animal. This can get you into trouble in ultras, but the ability to run through pain and discomfort is an assest at shorter distances and in situations where the external stressors are not severe. Ultras certainly attract individuals that have OCD tendancies and the faster runners often have the ability to ignore messages from the body to stop running. This can be a dangerous combination.

    Are there examples of when such efforts have advanced the boundaries of the sport?

    Before runners get to the point of serious health issues, they are operating well below their potential due to their physiological state for some period of time. Although there are certainly examples of people running themselves into the ground and winning races, it is likely if they would have run faster if they had taken in more water, salt, run a more even pace, etc. The perfect race is where you are operating at your peak level for the entire race, and things start to fall apart right towards the end. Dehydration, low salt, etc. has a strong negative effect on performance, and usually by the time you are in renal failure, things have not been working optimally for quite some time. In a highly competitive ultra, having the winner end up in the hospital is unlikely, so I don't see those type of efforts advancing the boundaries. In situations where the this has happened, the effort may be independent of the hospitalization, such as when there is kidney damage due to NSAID use. Boundaries such as the amount of NSAIDS someone can take before triggering complete renal failure may be advanced, though.

    What do you think of AJW’s possible explanation for his observed increase in such events?

    The increased popularity of 100's is certainly part of the story, and the overall increase in popularity of ultras. When this happens, you end up with more runners who are not as prepared running races. People were not dying of hyponatremia from drinking 3 gallons of water at a cool marathon in the early 80's when everyone and their little sister could break 3 hrs. at Boston. Someone who is successful at sub ultra distances and moves up to the 100 without spending some time at shorter distances may be more likely to end up in the hospital. Part of it also seems to do with the continued use of NSAIDS before and during hot ultras. NSAIDS don't cause kidney issues, and vaccines cause autism. Considering how intelligent the running crowd is, I'm shocked at some of the stories I still read on NSAIDS use during ultras.

    Have you ever pushed yourself past your boundaries? If so, have you embraced such an effort or have your vowed to change your ways? On the latter point, how have you changed?

    The horror stories I have heard of friends running 100's have been part of the reason why I have little interest in distances that long. I'm fully aware that you can run 100's and stay healthy, but I also think that you can try and do everything right and still run into serious health issues.

    I look at any race where I've gotten into even moderate physical distress as a failure of preparation, execution, or both. It's funny to think about how mad I was at myself the first time I ran a very violent 12 mile trail race called 7 Sisters. I had been running well before the race, and my legs were so destroyed after the race I was sure I had done permanent damage that would have long term effects. I literally could not walk right for 7 days after a 12 mile race. At Pineland Farms 50 mile this year, I pushed myself to the point where my quads were cramping so bad I think I saw my femurs. I really don't think of that way. What really happened is that I didn't take in enough salt; I failed at executing an effective race plan. I blame the weatherman for being 10 degrees off on the high for the day, but I should have taken in more salt earlier.

  12. Jim Blanchard

    Just a thought using Auto racing as a metaphore. Laying it on the line shouldn't mean crossing the line. In motor racing the game is to take it as close to the edge as possible without crossing it. Stepping over=wreck. I was able to take it as close to the edge as I dared once in my 100 mile career. I was scared and thrilled at the same time. Looking back I realized that with my pacer's encouragement, I was able to keep on that edge without stepping over for maybe 50 of the 100 miles. Taking no painkillers that day helped. Once in a lifetime run, but the shocking thing was incredably fast recovery! All attempts at a repeat have fallin short and times when I tried to force something or ignored my body and used painkillers have resulted in injury or other physical issues. I no longer try for the magic run, but I'm thankful that I experienced one.

    1. Jason

      How do you know where the edge is unless you stumble over it every once in a while? My edge is much different know than it was 5 years ago. Without testing it I wouldn't know that.

      1. Ben Nephew

        You don't need to end up in the hospital to figure out where your edge is if we are talking about the edge of optimal performance. Jim's comment on knowing when not to force something in a race when you are just not having a good day is very relevant. I'm sure Geoff Roes could have finished UTMB, but instead of risking injury, he stopped, and then came back to win UROC. In marathon racing, a 4-5 minute postive split is enough stumbling over the edge to tell you that you were overly optimistic as to where your edge was. Running a 15 minute positive split is like running off a cliff with the expectation that you can fly. It is going to hurt when you hit the ground, and you already knew you couldn't fly.

        I like the auto racing metaphor. Cars and bodies can take a certain amount of abuse, but running without oil or a bad crash can have consequences far beyond a single race.

        AJW, what about a follow up piece on the aftermath of post race hospital honeymoons?

        1. AJW

          Ben, good idea. I bet a quick survey of all the high-profile hospitalizations (Morrison, Finkel, Skaggs, etc…) would provide a pretty clear picture.

  13. Mike

    my first 50 miler- Bishop High Sierra in 2009, 70's at the start and 90's later during the day, but the altitude kept it cool.

    Being a marathoner, I didn't think much of not peeing during the run – at all – I drank, ate some gels, etc., fought off cramps and finished without heat exhaustion.

    It was hard to drink and eat during that night – wore my compression sleeves to bed (big mistake), and on the 6 hr ride home.

    2 weeks later have shortness of breath – turned out I got a DVT in my calf, which developed into embolisms in my lungs – fortunately that was it. But off my feet for 2 weeks followed by a long recovery to get to run again.

    Ran my second 50 miler in April, two years later, peeing every 30 mins on average, and had a great experience.

    Sure changed my way of looking at something I took for granted – running, my life, family.

  14. Jason

    You cannot blame pacers teams crews or anyone else but the runner. There are many reasons and people motivating the runners but they have the ultimate say. Did I see someone at the edge yes, but you see this in every sport. I was a competitive powerlifter for years and I watched people push themselves to the point of breaking and beyond. How do people learn except through failure? We know that Brian has the mental strength to move but the physical failed him that day. Humans are competitive and by nature strive to push and break through limits and barriers.

  15. Dave M

    Gotta go with the 3 miles per day choice there.. running should be a lifetime sport IMO (like all sports?) But mt biking comes a close second for sure.

    As far as limits, regarding Ben's experience at Pineland Farms.. Ben, did you not learn something about yourself in seeing your femurs? I would argue that next time you run Pineland Farm 50 mile, and controlling for foreseeable variables (weather, salt, training, etc etc), you would run a better race because your mind and body have adapted and learned from prior experience. I posit that failure (or near failure) is key to success; and no one should die wondering what might have been. Of course, kidney failure and death should be avoided at all costs and nsaids and overhydration should be treated modestly. I am not sure where to go with this, but the perceived limits are not physical most of the time, they are mental and self-imposed.

    BTW, new men's CR today by two minutes at NYC marathon. I wonder what Geoffrey Mutai thinks of limits.

    1. Ben Nephew

      At this point in my career, I should have known better, and if I had known how hot it was going to be, I would have upped the salt intake and possibly avoided being passed by a 70 yr. old while I was cramping. I did learn that it is possible to recover from pretty major cramping and get back to a reasonable pace, so that was useful. My experience was far different from running into major physical issues. My concern with pushing to point of major physical distress in ultras is that it is hard to know the long term effects of this. I also don't feel you need to be all that extreme in testing your limits, especially if you are looking to have a long running career. I remember reading an interview with Alberto Salazar where he thought that his over the top efforts in the heat led to major depression. There is some scientific support of that type of thing, but it's the type of thing that is hard to actually test. He was very successful, but it seems like with his coaching he is not promoting his own level of racing and training aggressiveness.

      I would bet that Geoffrey Mutai and/or his coach knew that he was capable of that kind of time based on workouts.

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