JANUARY Featured Athlete - Doug Bennett Sport - Ultra Trail Runner
“I can run 32 miles… I do that almost every weekend for my long training runs. No problem” which may sound like an odd thing to be thinking upon arriving at the mile 68.5 aid station…But before we get to that, a little about me:
When I first started running 5 years ago it was at the age of 47 after a lifetime of sedentary behavior.
I hadn’t done much other than occasionally walk a golf course for over 17 years and it showed. I was almost 200 lbs (I’m around 155 lbs today) and I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without getting winded and sweating. I had a fairly significant knee injury when I was 16 and had a doctor tell me that lateral movements would be my enemy for the rest of my life: skiing, tennis, running would most likely cause me problems. With that “Belief” in mind, the couch I rode.
I started to run out of boredom essentially. First a mile or less on my dusty, lonely, treadmill and then two miles. I found that the skies didn’t open and the ground didn’t swallow me up and that I could actually run without pain (other than the normal new runner soreness). I then tried the 5k loop at the Rose Bowl and for quite a long time, I couldn’t run half way up the “hill” without stopping and gasping for air. Off I went. I joined a running club, started training for real and eventually qualified for, and on Patriots Day in 2017, ran the Boston Marathon. Always in the back of my head though were the trails and ultra marathon distances. 50k, 50mi and that big, mean, ugly bastard at the back of the bar: One Hundred Miles. In November of 2017 at the age of 51, I attempted and would ultimately fail at my first attempt to complete my first “hundo”. In the weeks leading up to the race when people would say things like “So I hear you’re planning to run a hundred miles” my response would inevitably be something along the lines of “Yeah, that’s the plan” or “We’ll see, but I’m going to try”. In hindsight these responses were an indication that I was giving myself an “out”, that deep down inside I needed to know that quitting was an option. At some 100 mi races up to 60% of people that toe the starting line don’t finish and end with a DNF. Rio Del Lago has a drop rate of around half that number but still, one in three… so don’t I get an excuse…?
The day was cold and rainy and my hip hurt. Maybe I was over-trained going into the race, maybe it was the cold weather that cramped me but there it was, the glowing embers of a “Valid Reason To Quit”. As the day went on the owner of my sports mobility provider Vision for Enrichment (VFE) who agreed to be my Crew Chief and the rest of my crew would get to watch me dissolve into misery and eventually quit at mile 68.5. Was I broken physically? I convinced myself that I was but really, deep down where that quiet voice of Truth is, was I really broken? No.
So here we were again heading back up to beautiful Folsom California, Rich agreeing to again to act as Crew Chief for me in spite of my performance at the same race the prior year as well as a new group of friends agreeing to crew for me and pace me. So what was going to be different this time? Certainly I was in better shape. My core work, muscle balance and overall strength were on-point thanks to VFEKen and his mobility training, the nagging issues with my hip and ankle were handled by VFEChelsea, my long runs included big, big climbs to give me power – Physically I was right where I needed to be but more important my attitude was different. I knew that I would finish. This was a thing that I knew, believed and planned to execute on. It wasn’t arrogance or like a child whistling while walking by the graveyard at night. It was just that there wasn’t an option other than finishing. It wasn’t “I’m going to finish if I have to crawl across the finish line, bloody and bruised”. It was more “This is what I training for, what I sacrificed for, and what I was going to do.” Short of the medical staff at the race pulling me to save me from major injury I was going to finish. How? Attitude. When people asked me about my race I would answer that yeah, I was going to run Rio del Lago, not that I would “try and run it” or “see how it would go” that I would run it. Plain and simple.
Going in I asked for a strong body and got it, good weather, check, etc. but what I really demanded of myself was that no matter what, I would stay positive, that I wouldn’t let the way that I was feeling physically to affect my attitude. I absolutely believed that no matter how much pain and discomfort I was going to go through, that no matter how tired I got, that I can stay positive during the race.
As the hours went on, from 5am at the start through the first 19mi loop, through the climb up to Overlook and beyond I felt really good. Tired yes, but really good. When my crew asked me how I was doing I’d answer honestly about my physical state but would stay positive; “My knees hurt quite a bit but I feel really good.” Rich would work on the issue and off I’d go. My crew never had to push me out of an aid station. Get done what I need to get done and go back to putting in work.
I had one low spot during the race emotionally and that was at the aid station where it went to hell the last year, where in 2017 I sat for over twenty minutes and locked-up my legs, where I contemplated what the hell I was doing there. This year I was emotionally low at the same spot. I never contemplated quitting but I did contemplate sitting down and “resting”. With my pacer’s “gentle encouragement” I snatched up my stuff and moved on towards the aid station 68 miles in where I had quit the previous year. The positive attitude eventually caught back up to me from wherever I lost it and off we went together. Having a great pair of pacers during the race helped a tremendous amount. Their mantra was find find the issue, fix the issue, push the runner, stay positive, keep me moving.
So on we went to that aid station, the aid station after which each step that I took would be a new PR for distance. On to the aid station and past. Then I heard myself say it: “I can run 32 miles… I do that almost every weekend for my long training runs…” On we went. I used that mind game for the rest of the race. “Man, look how much I’ve achieved already! And I only have to run another 25… 18… 10…
At around 4am in one of the most remote parts of the course my pacer was casting around his headlamp and quietly said “I see yellow eyes. What is that?” I looked over and could see a low, blond animal looking at us from around 40 yards off the trail. I equally as quietly said “That’s a mountain lion.” - the first I had ever seen in the wild. Time to slowly go on with our morning. Seeing an apex predator at 4am in the middle of nowhere it turns out wasn’t frightening to me. The cat wasn’t looking aggressive at all, if anything it was looking bored. It was just standing there looking at us as if to say “What are all of these smelly, skinny humans doing in my home scaring away my deer?” What a blessing, what an experience, an experience that if I had quit at that mile 68.5 aid station again, I would have missed.
On we went past sunrise. On we went till the finish line and the buckle that I wanted so badly and for all the people who supported me during my journey to complete this race successfully - thank you!!!! Victory.