Aching muscles, strained tendons, sprained ankles, blown quads, a blown mind--what makes an ultramarathoner even consider running 100 miles in a day? Hit! Balm creator Larry Miller attempts to describe the Why? of taking on the challenge of a lifetime.
It's 2:30am and I haven't slept a wink. Not a wink. Usually before a race I'll get at least a few hours of crappy sleep, but this is the night before the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, the granddaddy of all ultramarathons, the holy grail of long distance trail races. My alarm is set for 3:00am (the race starts at 5a), so even if I were to pass out now, would 30 minutes even help? To hell with it: bring on the sufferfest.
Western States (WS) is perhaps the most difficult ultramarathon to get into. Founded in 1974 by Gordy Ainsleigh, the course runs from Squaw Valley atop Lake Tahoe down to the gold rush town of Auburn, CA just outside of Sacramento, descending some 24,000 feet over the course of 100.3 miles. Aside from finishing in the top three of a qualifying race or finishing top ten in the previous WS, the only other way into the race is via lottery. This year, nearly 6000 runners were vying for 300 spots in the race; it takes most runners years to get into the race, if they ever do. Luckily, my name was drawn after four years of attempts to get in, to which the normal person's reply is "Luckily?!? You're lucky that you have to run a hundred miles?" What's wrong with me that upon hearing I got into the race I started yelling 'YEAH!' repeatedly, until someone asked me how much money I'd won? Awaiting me as my reward was aching pain, nausea, blisters, mental and physical exhaustion, repeated mindfuckery, and with any good fortune a beautiful bronze buckle waiting for me at the finish line.
I had a crew of my childhood buddies looking after me during the race by meeting me at designated aid stations, making sure to fill my running pack with food and hydration, give me a pep talk, then massage Hit! Balm into my knees and calves to keep the pain and inflammation at bay. This was one of the keys to my day: if Hit! Balm could keep my on my feet and out of aid station chairs and medical cots, my dream of a Western States finish would be far more likely. Inability to manage pain is one of the main reasons that ultrarunners do-not-finish (the dreaded DNF), and I was certain that I didn't want my first-ever DNF to be at Western States--I'd crawl the last ten miles to avoid that.
The race is typically run in over 100º weather in the dead of a Sierra foothills summer, and in a hot race one of my biggest challenges is to manage my stomach and avoid the nausea that can keep a runner from adequately fueling the effort required to finish. (At another notoriously hot race, the San Diego 100, I came as close as I ever have to dropping, at mile 41, sick and unable to eat to the point that I fueled exclusively on Coca Cola for the next 50 miles, over 13 hours--it was all my stomach would allow.) This year at Western States was what they'd call a 'cool year' with highs only reaching the low 80's and my stomach turned out to not be an issue; the challenges on this day were mental. Was it the lack of sleep? Accumulated fatigue from working, parenting, helping to run a start-up pain relief business? Who can say. Leg pain, so prevalent in these things, was completely manageable to the point that I don't think it had any real effect on me.
2019 Western States was my sixth hundred mile race and the first I'd run with Hit! Balm as part of my race strategy, and it made a remarkable difference. I say this not because it's my company; frankly if it hadn't worked I just wouldn't post on the race at all! I've never had less acute pain during a race before, and following WS I was nearly completely recovered and walking normally within a day and a half. That is not normal--my wife thinks I'm a freak of nature, but it wasn't just me. I'd never run another hundred without Hit! Balm again.
Will I run a seventh hundred? In the middle of WS, somewhere around mile 60, I felt very certain that I was going to retire from ultrarunning--I was sick of the effort it took, gutting out so many moments, tired of the training, the pressure I put on myself. After time passes though, like the pain of childbirth, I'm sure I'll impulsively sign up for another race. I put myself through the challenge because of how alive I feel while I'm doing it, and how inspired I am at the thought of doing epic things; maybe it inspires my kids too, who knows? To continue though, I know something now that I didn't understand as a younger man--recovery is crucial, management of inflammation is crucial, occasional rest is crucial. Good thing I started a company that enables all of those strategies for longevity in the sport that I love, as tough as it is.