Unpacking the Snakebite

Last Sunday some friends and I ran the Yeti Snakebite 50km trail race just outside Atlanta.

There is a component of training, not just piling up miles, that is about preparing yourself mentally for the biggest challenge. I spent six months or more visualizing the Yeti Snakebite in my mind, trying to understand what it would be, convincing myself that I would be ready. So much mental energy went down that drain of unknowable outcomes, that when the day actually came, I was properly shocked by the real experience of running 30 miles in the Georgia hills.

I’d love to be able to tell you that I crushed the race. I’d love to tell you I was happy with my time, or that my race strategy had been right. I’d like to say that I worked hard enough, that I turned my experience into performance, etc., etc., but that’s just not how it went on the day.

It was my first ultramarathon, and it was always going to be hard. Until you’ve done it, you haven’t done it, and you can’t really know how to do it.

With all that as tortured prologue, here’s a simple breakdown of how the day went for me.

8am – We, Caitlin, Meghna, and I, started. It caught us by surprise. There were a few words from Jason, the Yeti race director and charismatic leader, and then, as we were still milling around and adjusting ourselves, someone said “go.” I had to pee.

8:15am – We’re running. The pace seems appropriately slow, something just faster than a hard walk. We’re surrounded by runners. The energy is good, like it always is in the first mile or two.

9:00am – I pull over, trailside to pee. This will be memorable later.

10:15am – We finish the first lap (9.5 miles). I realize, in evaluating the condition of my soaked shirt and shorts, that the humidity is hitting me pretty hard, but I still feel good. I change my shirt, my socks, and grab a fresh bandana. We set out running again. The day is heating up.

11:00am – As we reach the base of the loop’s biggest climb, I feel the wheels come off. This is mile 12 or 13. It’s early still. My heart rate won’t settle. My legs get heavy. I begin to panic. This is not how it was supposed to go, and there is a long, long distance still to cover. Meghna and Caitlin begin to slow down for me. This is incredibly nice, but also emotionally devastating. I am now marching forward as best I can, with only brief spells of shuffle-running on descents.

11:45am – I apologize to Meghna, who is trying to take care of me. She says it’s ok, and I say, “I know it’s ok, but I’m not going to be able to be the teammate I wanted to be today, and I just need to say I’m sorry about that. I need to say it, so I can move on with what needs to be done.” I am still marching at a decent clip, and my heartrate won’t come down. I’m over 160bpm, and this worries me, because I don’t think I can maintain that heartrate for the hours that remain. At this stage I push all of my emotional nonsense aside and begin working on solving my dehydration/heart issues. I chew salt tabs. I suck down Gus, and drink as much electrolyte as I can, monitoring my heart rate to see what it will respond to.

1pm – We wrap up the second lap (19 miles). Diligently moving forward and working on nutrition and hydration have me trending positive again. I change shoes and socks, ditch my second soaked bandana, pull off my shirt, and switch to a hydration belt in hopes of cooling off a little. This is a good reset. After starting on the march, I manage a little running at the beginning of the loop.

1:30pm – The upswing continues. I’m moving fast, despite not running. Meghna has floated away on good legs, and I am feel both relieved and inspired. I have Caitlin in my sights still. She’s lagging for me a little, but also maybe slowing down with fatigue.

The start of lap 3

2pm – On a brief rock scramble at the base of the big climb, my right calf goes into hard cramp. I scram with the sudden pain, and Caitlin, now only a few feet in front, spins around to see what tragedy has befallen me. I jam my thumb into the meat of the muscle to try to get it let go, which it does eventually. We laugh a little, but only a little, and then continue on up the climb. This is where the wheels come off again. Every step is a struggle. The calf throbs. My hip flexors tighten and ache. My heartrate soars again.

2:30pm – We are moving, Caitlin and I, but neither of us is in a good place. Now I am in front. My mind is hyper-focused on forward progress. I feel awful. Every time I consider the remaining distance, despair rises and I shove it down again, just one step after another. My calf threatens to cramp again but holds. My legs get heavy and then lighten. Every incline pushed my heart past 160bpm. I’m not breathing hard. Nothing in my demeanor justifies such a high heart rate. This is troubling.

2:45pm – I’m too far in front of Caitlin. She is struggling. I resolve to wait for her so stop walking, lean over, and put my hands on my knees. Instantly my vision starts to go black. I pick my head up again. The tunnel opens and then closes again. I lurch forward. After a moment I understand that my blood pressure has dropped. When my heart rate slows suddenly, there is not sufficient flow to keep me upright. I assume I have triggered a blackout by putting my head down. After a minute, I decide to try stopping again but with my head up. I lean against a tree, but I begin to lose consciousness again, so stumble forward.

3pm – I am worried about Caitlin, which is pretty rich, considering my own state. I turn around on a relatively level stretch of trail and walk back to her. She is confused by my behavior. I explain that I can’t stop, so this was the only way to reconnect. She tells me to keep moving. It occurs to me, that I may not be able to stop moving, even at the end, without losing consciousness, and I worry that this will happen and someone will call an ambulance, and it will be terrible.

3:15pm – Things get increasingly weird in my mind. I am less focused on the suffering than I was. My body seems to be moving on its own. I have the realization that this, this extreme state, is what I came for, that as much as I hate the way I feel, I am exactly where I am meant to be. It’s a soothing thought.

3:30pm – On the day’s last long climb I begin to worry that I am off course. My mind is not sharp. My eyes are fixed on the ground. I wonder if I’ve missed a trail marker. I let forward motion continue and try to dismiss my worries. I’m alone now.

Caitlin and I after the finish

3:45pm – I can see that I’m getting closer to the finish, but I lose some of the strange equanimity I’d found. I hurt a lot. A group of women pass me, jogging, and it feels cruel, though I’m happy for them. I run out of liquids.

3:50pm – I come out of the woods, onto the wide trail that goes over a bridge, up a road, and around a corner to the end. Meghna is there. She cheers. I can see that she has been finished long enough to have changed into dry clothing. I know now that I’ll make it, and then most coherent thought leaves me. I say to Meghna, “Caitlin is behind me. Help her,” and I slog my way up to the bridge.

3:53pm – There is an aid station on the far side of the bridge, and even though I’m just over a quarter mile from the finish, I fill one bottle with ginger ale. I’m parched. My stomach hurts. I think I need that 6oz of soda to get the rest of the way. My friend Emily is there. She says, “You’re amazing! You’re going to make it!” And I say, “I’m going to make it,” and begin crying. I march up the hill drinking ginger ale and blubbering. I am not sad, and I am not happy. I am raw emotion.

3:55pm – I thought I might be able to find a few shuffling, running steps to get up to the finish, but I can’t. I can only walk. There is loud music. The emcee is telling me to “Come up here and get some feelings!” The race director hugs me. The emcee, a heavily bearded man in a tutu, his whole being covered in glitter, also hugs me. He tries to hand me a beer, which I decline. I stumble away from the finish, find a tree stump, sit down and cry. I don’t know why I am crying. I just feel a sense of raw emotion. The catharsis is overwhelming.

I’m not crying, you’re crying.

As I write, it’s the Thursday after the race, which was on Sunday, the 3rd. I am still unpacking it all.

Performance-wise, I was disappointed not to be able to run more, not to be able to finish with my friends, not to have been more on top of my game. But, somedays that’s just not on the menu. I am happy with the way I managed the adversity I encountered. My time, just under 8 hours, feels not bad in retrospect, given the conditions and what went on in my body.

During the race, I consumed 4 liters of electrolyte, in addition to 5 salt tabs, 3 Gus, a couple of bars, an orange, some watermelon, a PBnJ, half a Moonpie, some M&Ms, basically everything I felt I could swallow. It wasn’t enough. After peeing, trailside, at 9am, I didn’t pee again until 9pm that night, and barely then. I can only conclude that the dehydration I went through was beyond my control, and once I accept that, then I can’t have any regrets about the way things went.

In truth, I feel very proud of myself for finishing.

The last thing I want to say is that the emotionally raw place I arrived at was a completely unexpected gift. I think I repress a lot of pain, depression, anxiety, etc., and it’s too bad that I had to run myself nearly to death to be able to let it out, but ok. That’s what happened. I hope I can hang onto the openness that’s there, because it feels good. I would not recommend accessing the depths of your emotional self in this way, if there’s another path open to you, but for myself, I’m glad to have arrived there somehow.

Suffice it to say I never would have been here without Meghna and Caitlin. I wouldn’t have run. I wouldn’t have finished. I wouldn’t have learned all the things I learned. I start to cry when I think of it all.

All photos are from Caitlin.