An exercise of gratitude: I barely survived the Zumbro 50 Mile run

Hi John, thank you so much for your hard work to put on the Zumbro race. I was a first time 50 Mile finisher and I barely made it. What a brutal course! It broke me absolutely sideways.

[Strava activity here]

On the start of the second lap, just after cresting the first hill, just before 5am, the light and darkness started to vibrate and I began to hallucinate. I had to stop running to re-center myself. I couldn’t run without hallucinating again. For 4 long, slow miles, I beat myself down. My self-talk was a downward spiral of negative. I was walking slowly.

I was giving up.

I was going to finish the 2nd lap, get into my car, and drive away without telling anyone.

Eventually, I waddled to the first aid station. The volunteer told us we still had time to finish. We could do it if we just kept moving forward. I realized that I could still make it if I just walked the remainder of the course… for 11 more hours. The sun started to rise. At the top of that next hill, I suddenly got mad. I cursed the course. How dare Zumbro punch me back and think it had won? I stamped my feet, threw a tantrum, and screamed into the woods that I would beat Zumbro just to spite it. I kept going.

11 long hours of hiking later, I sprinted as fast as I could across the finish line. A volunteer handed me a coke. I collapsed into a folding chair and started to cry. I bawled my eyes out, convulsing with agony and relief and gratitude that I had entered the darkest place earlier that night for those 4 miles. I had decided to give up. But my legs had just kept moving forward.

Thank you to the volunteers, thank you to you, and thank you to all the other participants. Every single runner that passed me wished me good job and good work and good luck. There was no way I could have finished by myself.

Thank you for pushing me to grow beyond my limits.

Credit to Mike Wheeler here

On a mountaintop, I see my future self

Each time I hike to the top of a mountain, I get a strange but familiar feeling. I wake up. I feel like the last months were all a dream. Standing there, looking out over the wilderness, I feel real.

Something is going on here. Maybe mountaintops bring us closer to heaven; summiting is an accomplishment that brings us purpose; the beautiful landscape is awe-inspiring. But that’s not quite everything.

On top of a mountain, I feel connected to my previous selves that also summitted mountains. Spacetime creases, bends, and folds inward on itself. Suddenly, my life is a continuous moment: just those mountaintops. Everything else between those moments falls away.

Then, my future self looks back at me from the next mountaintop. And I know there’s more climbing to do.

Grant at the top of Zugspitze (Sep, 2017) – Notice the look of excitement but with terror

I’ve been training a lot for this Zumbro 50 Mile Race in early April, 2022. The full course boasts 6,750 feet (2,057 meters) of elevation across 50 miles (80.5 kilometers). The elevation gain is about the distance of the Kentucky Derby. Thinking of the elevation gain in these terms makes it more manageable. But by the last lap of this race, I will dread every gentle rise like a mountain to summit.

That’s the point of Ultramarathons: to push yourself beyond your perceived capacity. In that sense, mountaintops are like finish lines. At the finish line of my previous race, I saw my future self looking back at me from the next finish line. And I knew there was more to come.

Goal Achieved: The Sub-4-Hour Marathon

A few months ago, I set a goal to run a marathon (26.2 miles or 42.2 km) in under four hours. That would require a pace of 9:09 minutes per mile (5:41 per kilometer), including rest stops. I did a lot of research and put together a training plan. I focused on my diet, nutrition, and daily lifestyle. I incorporated certain types of workouts that would benefit my faster tempo speed. For Ironman training, I hadn’t been running with a high heart rate. But in my previous failed sub-4-hour marathon attempt, my heart rate was too high for too long. So, this time I worked on improving heart rate efficiency.

Activity tracked in Garmin Nov, 2021

In the end, I achieved the goal! I want to thank Taylor H. for his huge help during the pivotal 3/4ths of the race. He ran with me and handed me bottles when I was feeling down. Thank you!!

This attempt was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. One way to visualize it is by Relative Effort (RE). Strava calculates Relative Effort from a variety of metrics like heart rate and pace. Out of all 1,200+ activities I have recorded on Strava, this sub-4 hour marathon was my highest relative effort by a massive margin.

406 Relative Effort: The sub-4-hour marathon

330 RE: 84 mile hot, hilly ride
311 RE: Failed sub-4-hour marathon
249 RE: 107-mile hard rainy ride
245 RE: My first marathon
244 RE: Another 100-mile ride

Strava Relative Effort of Grant by Nov, 2021 (Strava file here:

I went through stages of grief during this race. To better understand the experience, I’ve summarized each mile of the race.

Mile 1: LET’S GO!!! I just finished listening to a David Goggins’ speech I was super emotional at the start.

Mile 2: I realize now that I forgot to pee before starting the race.

Mile 3: Selecting my music: epic Christian hits to go deep outside of myself.

Mile 4: First time I stopped for a drink of energy/electrolyte mix. Feeling solid.

Mile 5: My fastest mile by effort. Settling into a good pace.

Mile 6: My neighbors raking the leaves are looking at me funny after seeing me six times in the last hour.

Mile 7: I took a longer break here to pee and refresh with my drink mix and ginger tea. My stomach was feeling good. I took off some warm outer layer clothes, like my hat and gloves, as I warmed up.

Mile 8: One hour done. Feeling way better here than I did last time.

Mile 9: My heart rate starts to rise from my all-day pace into my tempo pace. From here onward, I’m burning more than I can replenish. That means the clock starts ticking on my energy reserves.

Mile 10: I start to get that small voice at the back of my mind telling me I’m uncomfortable.

Mile 11: The last mile that I run during which I feel “good.”

Mile 12: This is when the run starts getting difficult. I’m barely halfway and I feel like I’ve been running forever.

Mile 13: At the halfway point, I feel a boost of positivity, but this is short-lived. I’m under pace, but not by much. I bought myself a bit of wiggle room by running faster than I need to. But I’m getting tired.

Mile 14: The voice gets louder, yelling at me that I’m tired. But I get a savior: Taylor texts me that he’s on his way, and to stay strong. I shake my head in disagreement.

Mile 15: Taylor joins me for this mile. I can barely talk or breathe. I’ve still got my headphones in. We run together and blast out a solid mile time.

Mile 16: Taylor lets me run alone and instead manages my water station. Every mile I complete the loop, he hands me a bottle so I can sip and jog without stopping. I drink my mix according to the plan of one bottle per hour. I continue sipping lemon & ginger tea to help my stomach settle.

Mile 17: The wall gets bigger and my legs are heavy. I push a last effort to stay under pace, but I can’t. I fall backwards into stages of grief.

Mile 18: Grief stage 1: Denial. I have more than an hour remaining. My pace is slowing. I push harder, worrying that I’m about to hit the same wall that destroyed me last time at Mile 19.

Mile 19: Grief stage 2: Anger. I am livid at myself. This is the first mile during which I can’t run under pace. My speed starts slowing. Negativity washes over me like a deluge telling me that I won’t make it. I cry weakly.

Mile 20: Grief stage 3: Bargaining. I tear apart my old self and begin from the start. I don’t care about maintaining a pace. I care about finishing under 4 hours. I will do whatever it takes. I start doing mental math at how slow I’m going: calculating how much time I can lose on each mile and still make under four hours. Taylor has to leave so I’m on my own for aid.

Mile 21: Grief stage 4: Depression. For the last six miles, my heart rate had entered threshold pace. This is like putting the clock on my energy reserves into overdrive. I now have minutes, not hours, of energy left. I start to lose touch with reality; in a way the connection between my perception and surroundings starts to “melt.” I wonder if I can live with myself if I can’t finish. The reality of failure starts to make more sense.

Mile 22: Grief stage 5: Acceptance. I’m at my lowest. I would cry but I don’t have the energy to. I’m in a unique kind of pain. This pain is not sharp and obvious. It’s like the earth has ratcheted up the force of gravity pulling down on me. I can’t stay upright. Roots and molasses rip me downward. I know only one thing: I have to keep moving forward.

Mile 23: I build upon my acceptance. The clock on my energy has entered hyperspace as my heart-rate enters super-threshold. I am working the hardest that I’ve ever worked before. I switch my playlist back to David Goggins, looking for inspiration. But I feel distant from it.

Mile 24: I count every step, minute, and second until my torture is over. This is my slowest mile by time, but my hardest perceived effort so far. I finish my last drink bottle and throw it to the ground. Nothing else can help me now.

Mile 25: Wait, there it is. I can see the light now. The pacing math becomes easier. I see now how I can maintain this exact pace without pushing more, and still finish under four hours.

Mile 26: But it’s going to be close. I push harder again. My mind starts to reconnect back with my body and surroundings as I realize that I can do this. I count each .01 mile interval and I look down at my watch every couple of steps. I repeat to myself that I have to finish. I have to do it.

Mile 0.2: I push my pace to a sprint, which is the hardest I can run. This is the longest two minutes of my life. The only thing I’m focused on is staying upright. I stare down at my watch as the distance creaks higher.

Finished. I see the watch hit 26.22 and I’m done. I collapse onto the ground. I thank God and I am grateful to be done. I text Sahyli and text Taylor and call my brother Peter.

It’s over. A few minutes pass by and I am heaving air through my lungs.

I turn over. Struggling, I stand upright.

The next thing…

I’m onto my next adventure. I realize now that physical races are something special for me. They incorporate body, mind, and spirit in a way that is engaging and empowering. I rise to the occasion because I have to. These challenges force me to be better.

My next long-term goal, as of now, will be an ultramarathon running race. Or a running/hiking/walking race. It feels right. I ran the marathon slowly during my Ironman marathon, and I want to know that I can run longer. So, I’m looking into 50K and 50M races next year. I bought a new pair of shoes. I’m seeing a chiropractor. I’m changing my walking and running gait. I got a book. I’m listening to experienced ultra runners.

The odds are stacked against me: I’m heavy (more than 200 lbs / 94 kg). I am stocky and not built like a runner. I don’t have a coach. I hate the 3 Hs: Heat, Humidity, and Hills. I never really learned how to run: I just ran.

So, it’s a perfect challenge.

There’s something special about an Ultra that has a time cut-off. For a first-timer like me, I’m just hoping to finish. I don’t care what position I finish. I’ll be happy to arrive in last place, as long as I’m within the time limit. There’s something special about showing up to a race and not knowing whether you can finish it. Either I’m within the time cut-off or they drag me out on a stretcher.

So, my next challenge will be finishing a long distance within a certain time limit; but it’s not finishing under a specific time or pace (other than the time limit). Ultra time limits have some buffer. You don’t have to run fast to finish within the time limit. Some Ultras can be finished at the pace of a fast walk. But they’re so damn long and difficult that some races have more DNFs than finishers. So to me, the challenge is making the distance, not the time. I actually don’t know if I can physically make that distance at all.

There’s another thing I looked for in this next challenge. I want to do something big in an area in which I can do something smaller. For example, I can run a mile. So, why not run 30 miles? 50? 100? Maybe the next challenge after this will be an entirely new sport. Who knows.

I have to train more to get there. Specifically, I need to train my mind to invest all-in on this challenge. I need to prove some things to myself. I’ve run two full marathons already. Both times, I’ve hit the wall that broke me and I slowed to a walk. My best time is more than 4 hours. My next goal is training to run a sub-4 hour marathon. That pace is exactly 9:09 minute per mile pace for 26.2 miles including rest stops. I’m aiming to run under 9:00 minutes per mile to buy myself time for rest stops.

After a couple weeks of training in October, I spontaneously tried to do it. But I failed after 19 miles. I analyzed what went wrong and set a new date. Below is my After Action Report.

Anyway, I’m going to spend the winter running either way.

Now I’ve just got to decide for which race to sign up.

19 miles out of 26.2 Miler: After Action Report on 2021-10-10