"Neal Jamison probably should not even be here."
That's how Hellgate Race Director David Horton introduced me at the pre-race briefing. He knew that I had been injured since early summer. He knew I had been forced to drop out of the races I had planned for the fall. He knew that I had only decided to run Hellgate a week before this very night. But what he didn't know was that I had a secret.
2008 started out as a great running year for me. I was consistently running 40-50 mile weeks leading into the spring races. I finished almost all of them strong, turning in a couple PRs along the way. I was running strong with the tough Grindstone 100 in my sights when I got a little over ambitious and ran a hundred-miler in early June. I ran a good time, but paid for it. I developed tendinitis in both of my feet, a condition that would possibly change my running forever.
I tried to get the wheels turning again in August, but after a couple "long runs" of 15 and 11 miles, I gave up. The tendinitis was winning. Knowing that it would take time for me to heal - time I could not be training, I contacted David Horton and told him that I was out of Grindstone, Masochist, and quite possibly, Hellgate. Frustrated by injury, I lost the motivation to run. I don't run for "exercise." I run for fun. I wasn't having fun anymore, so I stopped. I hardly ran at all during September and October. I had one 18-mile week, the rest were under 12-miles per week.
Because I do enjoy getting outside and pushing my body, I turned to other things. I started lifting weights again. I began biking again. I rediscovered "Crossfit." While I don't follow their workouts to a T, I began to really enjoy the type of metabolic conditioning workouts that Crossfit prescribes: fast circuits of bodyweight or weighted exercises with very little rest. The feeling I got from those circuits reminded me of when I used to do hill sprints or track workouts. So much so, that I started incorporating sprints and hills into my workouts again. My total weekly mileage rarely topped 15 miles, but I was running again. Sprinting, running fast up hills, all out efforts. My daily run went like this: a 1.5-mile jog to the park, 20 minutes of sprinting, pushups, lunges, squats, planks, whatever felt good that particular day, then a walk or jog (if I could still jog) back. I was running hard, the way I like it.
Then I read about a guy named Carl Borg who ran the Angeles Crest 100 in a decent time with a long training run of 13 miles. That intrigued me. Knowing that my feet were still not ready for long training runs, I decided to see what Carl knew that I didn't. Through Carl, I discovered Crossfit Endurance: a group of accomplished endurance junkies, marathoners, Ironman triathletes, and ultrarunners. But where most endurance junkies run endless long slow miles, these guys run hills, intervals, and sprints. And they lift weights. Heavy weights.
I'll be honest here. I was looking for an easy way out. I couldn't put in the miles needed to train for Hellgate. At least not the way I used to train. In previous years I would ramp up to 60-80 mile training weeks in the last six weeks before Hellgate. There was no way my feet would take that this year. I needed an alternative.
What Carl was doing gave me hope. I was working out like that! I didn't know if it was getting me back into ultra shape or not, but I felt good, and I was having fun doing it. My body was buying into this Crossfit Endurance idea, but my mind just wouldn't go along. I was still convinced that without the long training runs, Hellgate would not be possible.
Then I got an email from a running buddy, Marc. He convinced me to go for it. Run, walk, crawl, do whatever it took. Just give Hellgate a try. I had a streak going there. Five finishes. Only eight others could say that. So with a few weeks to go, I upped my mileage a bit, and threw in lots of walking and a couple trail runs (the first in quite a while). My longest week leading up to Hellgate was 37 miles total, and it included two hill workouts, two interval workouts, two short runs with my dog, and the rest walking. Three weeks out, I ran an 11-mile run on the AT. This would be my longest run since August, and my only long one before Hellgate. I ran it hard, and when I got home and started comparing times, I realized it was a great run. Two days later, I ran a 5K time trial in one of my fastest times in years. Then the following week I ran a favorite 5.6-mile trail, in my third fastest time ever. I now knew my fitness was dialed in. But what about my endurance? Would it be enough to get me through?
Much to my surprise, it was. I'm still processing all of this and determining how it will influence my training in 2009. For now I'm a research project with one test subject. And it's kind of fun.