[The USA Ultra Tri’s Virginia Anvil is a double-iron distance race featuring a 4.8 mile swim, a 224 mile bike, and a 52.4 mile run. This race report is from Coach John’s experience at the 2015 event, which was held October 9-10, 2015.]
“In every challenging and difficult moment there is potential value, you have to believe in yourself and fight out the moment with a positive frame of mind.” ~ Anil Sinha
As my father and I drove back to our hotel room from packet pick up for at the Virginia Double Anvil, I came upon a stop light near 95N. At the stop light on the side of the road was a young homeless girl holding a sign.
“Homeless hungry,” it read.
It might have been me but the red light seemed longer than usual. As we had passed her, she looked up and down my new shiny F250 Ford truck with a camper in the bed. I wondered what she thought.
My mind raced to make a decision. Should I give her some money–maybe she really is hungry? F-it.
I grabbed a few dollars and gave it to my dad; he jumped right out of the truck and handed it to her. When he returned to the truck, we did not say anything about what just happened, but I know we both felt better for helping her.
This moment set the tone for the weekend. The best way to help yourself is to help others first.
For those planning to do the race, this is an open water, looped swim in Lake Anna. You complete 12 full loops. Your nutrition and bottles are kept for you in the water at one end of the loop on a float.
T1 – I had the fastest T1 of the day in 4:30. There’s no need to be wasting time here. It’s free speed. Don’t tell anyone! 😉
The bike course for the Virginia Double Anvil (and Triple Anvil, which was also being held the same weekend) is a 5 mile out-and-back lap, which you complete 45 times. There is a 180 degree turn at each end, which slows this course quite a bit, as you need to navigate the turn every 2.5 miles. This course features a few mild hills, and a mostly smooth road surface. I counted 2 pot holes in 5 Miles.
During the day, it was sunny and warm, with temps in the 80s. As night fell, the temperatures dropped, and the wind began to pick up. It rained just after dark and then again it rained harder for about 30-40 minutes around 10 p.m. While it was a short downpour, the wetness plus the temperature change seemed to take a toll on the entire field.
My total bike time was 11:51, which is almost exactly 1 hour slower compared to Florida double bike in March. This time difference was not surprising, as this course is a slower route than the loop-style, completely flat course in Florida. I came off the bike in first place, and was prepared to have a solid run–at least, that was the plan.
T2 – Again, my main focus was to avoid wasting time. Between T1 and T2, I saved 15 minutes compared to the rest of athletes by not wasting time in transitions.
At this point in the race, I began to understand just how much those seemingly little moments can add up to matter a lot.
The next 12 hours of moments tested me more than any other race–as they did my crew, who consisted of my Dad, Maria, and our friends and No Limits athletes Karl and Tim.
The run course is a 2 mile out-and-back lap, which you complete 26 times. As I returned from the first of these 26 laps, I knew immediately this might not be the run I had hoped for. I felt hot, I couldn’t breathe, and my stomach was giving rumblings that all might not be well in my GI tract.
By the time I got to 2 laps into the run, there was no denying it: I was having GI distress. I have had times in past years’ racing when my stomach would get upset. In each of those previous moments, I puked and then felt better.
This time it was not the same.
I was puking. I felt dizzy. I had a very high rate of perceived excursion–despite an extremely low heart rate. And mostly, I was feeling very sleepy. I was actually falling asleep for brief moments and almost falling over, barely catching myself right before I would stumble.
At some point through all of this, I started to hallucinate. I was seeing brick walls on the sides of the road just outside the view of my headlamp. Along with the walls, I thought there were tree branches about to hit my face. I ducked and weaved around these phantom limbs. I have heard of ultra athletes hallucinating, so I tried to tell myself these visions were not real.
Just focus! I thought.
My eyes were blurry and I could hardly keep them open. I looked into the now soaking wet woods on the side of the road and just wanted to crawl under a tree and go to sleep. It looked so comfortable in the woods but I resisted.
Okay. So this is happening to me now. I’m breaking down and my mind is very confused. I tried to hold on to rational explanations as much as possible.
When I got back to tent city after that loop, I was in survival mode. Maria and the crew tried every trick in the book but my gut rejected all the attempts. I would puke up whatever I put in.
By about 11 p.m. or so, I was at the point where I would do a death march loop, come back to tent city, sleep for 5-10 minutes, and then go back out and death march another loop.
I was still hallucinating often and all along the way, I was dry heaving because my gut was empty at this point. It took 8 hours for me to get through the first marathon. Yes, freaking 8 hours of hell–almost the same amount of time as it took me to do the double marathon in Florida in March.
I was burnt toast from 8 hours of virtually nothing to eat. I had eaten a few pierogis, and maybe a few sips of Coke that I did not puke up. But, that was clearly not enough to sustain the effort I had expended through the day.
Around 30 miles into the run I was completely losing it mentally & physically. The hallucinating got worse I could barely walk straight with the visuals forcing me to question my reality. I stumbled back to tent city and collapsed on the ground next to my dog in the mud and muck. I had to try to sleep and see if it would help.
Through the night, this is the pattern that would repeat for each lap: march a loop or two, sleep a bit. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
“Every moment is opportunity, focus on what is important, capture the good time, do away with the negativity & if things don’t work out, take a chance, review your attitude, things will improve, but never give up”—Anil Sinah
Just as daylight was breaking, I recollect suddenly waking up, jumping from the ground, and beginning to run again feeling better.
Trouble is, this recollection isn’t accurate. Maria tells a different story–a less hallucination-induced version of events. So, we’ll go with hers.
As daylight broke, Maria was out talking with other crews, trying to trouble shoot any way to get me back on track. She spoke with our friend Vas (who had completed a single Anvil two days prior). He said, “What’s going on? This isn’t like John.”
She explained to him what had happened throughout the night.
“Hold on a second. I have something,” he said.
He gave her a mix of pedialyte and Isagenix replenish, to mix with water. She gave me this concoction when I returned from the last lap. She said sternly, “Drink this. Vas made it for you. He said it will work and help you come back to the land of the living.”
I protested for a second, but I was at the point I would have tried anything. So, I sipped some down and kept moving past crew area not resting this time.
With the daylight came new perspective: I’m going to eat this elephant one 2 mile bite at a time. I was feeling bad for my crew. They are going to have to sit out here for possibly 36 hours for me to walk this. But, I couldn’t worry about that too long. I had to focus on the finish: I have to finish no matter what. As I sipped the concoction, I was able to begin power walking – no more death marching back to tent city.
The second loop with the concoction, I was feeling even better still. And, now, I was running! Wow, I can’t believe this is working, I thought. My head was now clear–no dizziness, no puking, no hallucinating.
The remaining miles are blurry for me but this is how I recall them. I continued to drink the new bottle mix, and I was finally able to find my real run again. After a lap or two of running, my crew told me there was time to catch the leader. At some point through the night, I had fallen into second place due to the sleeping breaks and walking so much.
“No way. I’m too far behind,” I said.
“No! Keep running and you’ll get him him,” Tim said.
“Keep running–do not stop,” Maria said.
“He’s right there,” Karl said.
Are they lying to me? I decided to believe them, and began to focus on the race for the first time in many many hours. I was no longer in survival mode. I was back in racing mode.
“Each moment of your life is a picture you have never seen before and will never see again. So live each moment to make it count and make each moment beautiful” –Arnold Toynbee
So here again, I found myself in a moment faced with an important choice. I was feeling almost normal–whatever normal is in an Ultra-distance event.
The voices whispered: Go for it. It’s only a 2 laps! (Spoiler alert: my lap count was incorrect at this point. It almost always is in these ultras.)
I took off not far after tent city climbing up a hill. I passed another runner who I thought was the leader. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.)
I saw another racer, who was in 3rd place at the time, and asked him who was in first. He said, “He’s not that far ahead. Go run him down!”
OK. OK. So, that guy wasn’t first place. That’s okay. I quickened my pace and effort. At the run turn around, I passed first (the real first place this time) and took the lead. I never looked back–although I wanted to.
As I came back in to tent city, I thought I only had one more loop for the win. As I crossed the timing mat, they told me: “Two more loops and you got this!”
WTF. OMG. More all caps curse words here.
“What? I thought this was my last lap?” I hoped there had been a mistake.
“No,” Dave, the timer, said. “Two more. Now get going!” No mistake.
I budgeted the effort in the last loop, think I would only have 2 more miles, but now it’s 4. Re-focus. Re-direct.
I can do this pace. Concentrate on form and breathing. Drink drink drink.
I saw the now-second place guy on that next loop, and I was about 1 mile or so ahead. He wasn’t trying to charge back. So, I settled in and ran the final miles at a cautious pace and effort–trying not to blow up again, but also not being satisfied in case second place tried to come back for me.
As incredulous as it seemed in the middle of the night, when even just the thought of finishing seemed in question, I crossed the finish line in over 27 hours, for a hard-fought first place.
While the race turned out okay for me, I wouldn’t necessarily say this was a successful day in terms of execution. But, days like this are the best learning opportunities, and there is little doubt that I learned more in this race than any other one that I’ve done to date. Here’s a quick listing of those lessons, each of which has to do with small moments of execution that matter:
- The week leading in to the race was not ideal. I didn’t pay attention to all of the little things that add up to have an important impact. Specifically, I didn’t have enough sleep, especially the night before the race. I was rushing around all week to get things packed and organized, and I didn’t spend enough time on relaxing and focusing. My race week nutrition was not as tight as it should have been.
- Because I was fatigued, I wound up taking in caffeinated nutrition products earlier than I normally do. I believe this had a negative impact on my stomach. This is likely one of the main contributors to my stomach upset. Too many hours of consuming caffeinated products will lead to a very unhappy gut. Normally, I don’t take in caffeinated products into the final third to final quarter of a race. I started them about halfway through this time.
- I stopped eating when my stomach turned. One of the things we tell our athletes is to never stop eating – even if you feel sick. I disregarded this advice, and got myself to the point where it was no longer possible to take in nutrition.
- On the bike, I ate calories in big servings instead of breaking them down over time. I’ve never done this in the past before, and it had a negative effect.
Sometimes when you’ve been racing a long time, you can become complacent and forget how much these little moments matter when they are added up. This race was the perfect reminder that every moment matters. Every decision has an impact.
Big thanks to Tim, Karl, my dad and Maria for crewing me. You all have now seen me at my worst, but you all always remained positive and never gave up on me or let me give up. You all were amazing!
Thanks to Steve Kirby for having this race and all the people that raced and supported each other all day and night. I consider you all like family and the time we shared was amazing–even the dark moments.
“Transformation is a process, and as life happens there are tons of ups and downs. It’s a journey of discovery–there are moments on mountain tops and moments in deep valleys of despair.”—Rick Warren
Enjoy each moment.