This is the before and after story of a father-son journey from zero to 100 miles in 30 months.
Guest Author: Tim Toben is a 58 year-old father of five, who started running again at 56. He lives in Chapel Hill, NC and operates a sustainable farming nonprofit called The Eco-Institute at Pickards Mountain. His son Nathan Toben, a 32 year-old ultra runner/coach, trained his father for 30 months, leading up to the 2017 Pinhoti 100.
Courtney Dauwalter changed everything. Courtney is the 32-year old ultra runner who not only won the 238-mile MOAB 240, but beat the rest of the field of men and women by over 10 HOURS! In her victory, there is a lesson, even for an old man running his first 100. The question is no longer, am I “man-enough” to finish a 100-mile ultramarathon, but am I woman-enough? (Here’s the URP interview with Courtney.) This week, I will travel to Alabama, where I will attempt the Pinhoti 100. The 101-mile course traverses the beautiful Talladega National Forest from Heflin to Sylacauga.
My journey into trail running, began 30 months ago as a superficial undertaking to improve my physical fitness. I was drinking too much and occasionally smoking tobacco, both of which diminished me. I’d watched my 32-year old son Nathan transform his life through running and wanted that for myself. He was running 10 miles a day. I aspired to just 10 miles/week.
He encouraged me to “just start, even if it was a fast walk and a mile.” A mile a day became two and then three and eventually five. We think we know how to run, but most of us don’t. There are ways to land, push off, swing your arms, lift your head, engage your glutes, etc. that improve efficiency and prevent injury. I was “starting” to run again at 56 years old, so I listened and learned. After three months, Nate told me that he’d registered us for the City of Oaks Half Marathon in Raleigh. That 13.2 mile race went well and my little kids, Thai and Ezra, met me 100 yards before the end and escorted me across the finish line.
I increased my miles, a little each week, maintaining an aerobic heart rate (MAF Method) and focusing on three week training blocks. On the fourth week, I’d drop back to three miles a day to let my body assimilate my progress. After a few more months, Nathan registered us for the Myrtle Beach Marathon. I’d run one other marathon in my life, but it had been 30 years since then, and I wasn’t sure I could do it again.
But I did. And I beat my three decades old marathon time by over 30 minutes.
It was spring now, so running was easier. I was 57 and running 30-40 miles per week. I’d lost ten pounds, stopped smoking, and was feeling better than I’d felt in 20 years. My training runs had become a spiritual practice, a morning meditation in the woods. Nathan continued to tweak my running form to increase my efficiency. He’s a 32-year old endurance athlete, so we rarely trained together, but I’d gotten a runner’s watch with GPS and all sorts of bells and whistles, and he could monitor my routes online — heart rate, cadence, and pace. He suggested adjustments, like any trainer, and my speed and endurance continued to improve. Nate introduced me to his trail running friends, and I joined a few group runs. It was time to try my first mountain ultra.
Iron Mountain, in Damascus VA, was that race. A 50K in the mountains with 5200′ of climb. We put together a race plan and set time goals — (A) best, (B) likely, and (C) lowest. For me they were 7:00 hrs, 7:30 hrs, and 8 hrs. Ultras are amazing. They are almost always in beautiful places. They are weekend events that require camping or cottage stays, nearby. The Ultra Community rallies and volunteers to set-up aid stations at 5-9mile intervals along the race route, stocked with food and drinks and first aid supplies. Ultra running is very different from marathon running. Ultras happen on mountain trails, often covered with roots and rocks, and there’s typically climbs and descents, some quite challenging. Marathons happen on roads and elevation changes tend to be more gradual. Money and sponsors are scarce in the Ultra Community, so the elites and novices hang out together and their crews intermix. Marathons are more competitive with clear division between the sponsored elites and the weekend warriors. Ultras are cooperative — every participant knows its an ordeal and wants their comrades to finish.
I finished 50 minutes ahead of my A-goal at 6:10. It was the most gratifying athletic achievement of my life. And I began to see how different ultras were from shorter distance races. They are journeys, for both body and mind. And, I was beginning to see that the mental journey was as significant as the physical one.
I took a two month break to recover and regroup. As an older runner, I’ve found that recovery simply takes longer, so you have to yield, but I think I could have been fine with just a month off. I needed a new challenge, so on my 58th birthday, I registered for the Cruel Jewel 50-miler near Blairsville, GA.
The Cruel Jewel is generally viewed as the most difficult 50-mile Ultra in the Southeast. It is 56.65 miles with over 15,000 feet of elevation gain. My question leading up to race day: “Was I tough-enough, ‘man enough,’ to finish?” I was moving well through the first 35 miles, but heavy thunderstorms rolled in and I was soaked for the last six hours and falling a lot on the slippery trails. My physical conditioning was good, but my mental preparation fell short. The last ten miles were grueling. My headlamp was failing, but thanks to a female athlete who passed me and guided me in, I finished at 2am, with blisters on both feet and without four toenails that I’d lost, due to blood pooling.
Despite the post-race aches and pains, I felt stronger and smarter. I’d learned a lot. Mostly about the mental challenges and my need to train my mind with the same degree of effort as I’d devoted to training my body. With Nathan’s encouragement and with continued physical training and mental discipline, I thought I could be ready for a 100-miler in six months. So…I signed up for the Pinhoti 100. That race is November 4-5.
I increased my miles to around 50/week for the final four months and ran the Iron Mountain 50K again, mostly as a training run. My A-goal was to match my previous time of 6:10, because everything had gone right that day. But I also applied some new mental discipline to my race and used my mind to float above the pain, once I’d applied the available physical remedies (water, gels, nut bars). And it worked. I finished in 5:41, knocking 29 minutes off my previous time. For me, it was a breakthrough to a new relationship between my mind and body.
My peak training block leading up to Pinhoti included my first 80-mile week, with a weekend schedule of 30-miles on Friday, 20-miles on Saturday, and five miles on Sunday. The race is a week away and I’m in full physical taper, but the mental training is actually on the uptick. That’s because of Courtney Dauwalter. Courtney has been moving up in the Ultra ranks for the past several years. But her performance in Moab Utah reset the standards for ultra running and brought together some observations I’ve made as a father of five children.
If this is an insight, I give Ms. Dauwalter the credit:
I’ve been present for the labor and delivery of all five of my children. Mothers approach childbirth in a way similar to how Dauwalter described her Moab 240. It is not about conquering or powering through, but rather about (1) preparing well, and (2) adapting fluidly to the myriad situations that arise. No two childbirths are the same, just as no two ultras are the same. Except for elite athletes, 100-mile ultras take between 24-30 hours to complete. Unexpected injuries, digestive issues, weather hazards, and equipment failure create mental challenges that are compounded by extreme fatigue. If the orientation to the race does not accommodate the unexpected, the likelihood of a DNF (did not finish) increases.
Completing the race depends on the mental capacity to rise above pain and other hurdles that arise during the ordeal. It is a feminine lesson.
I remember falling in the mud and poison ivy for what seemed like the dozenth time, 42+ miles into the Cruel Jewel. I was angry, tired, spewing expletives, ready to stop. The masculine “man-up, be decisive, suck-it-up,” just didn’t serve me with 15 miles to go. Now I relate that moment to a point 20-hours into the labor of one of my children. My wife was pale, physically depleted, beyond ready for it to be over. But it would be six more hours and an episiotomy, before the baby was born.
In her post-race interview, Ms. Dauwalter was asked “did you ever consider stopping?” Two hundred thirty eight miles in the mountains of Utah…total elevation gain — the height of Mt. Everest. Her answer was “no.” So how does this lesson apply to my angry moment at Cruel Jewel? Maybe my response could have been “glad I got that out of the way,” or “I’m a little closer,” or the MLB sports commentator approach “he slides into second!” There is a mental choice at that moment that will serve to defeat me or coax me forward. I get to make that choice. I know…and you’re absolutely right…this is much easier said than done. I’m not claiming I can get there. We shall see.
I went into the Cruel Jewel 50 with the question “am I ‘man-enough’ to finish my first 50-miler?” With the training of my son, the experience of a 5-time father, and the witness of Courtney Dauwalter’s extraordinary finish at Moab, I will enter Pinhoti with the question “am I woman-enough” to finish my first 100. — with Nathan Toben.
After Pinhoti 100:
I didn’t know if I could do it. A 58-year old, retired father of five, attempting to run 100.59 miles in less than 30 hours. Was I being unrealistic, stupid, selfish, crazy? Or was this an adventure that would extend the horizons of my life? A vision quest. A rite of passage.
Six months earlier, I had run the Cruel Jewel 50, a tough 56-mile Ultra in North Georgia, but 100 miles was a whole different beast. My eldest son and his “Trailhead” running club friends believed I could do it. “Put in the (training) miles, make a plan, and run your race. We’ll be there.” I wanted to do it. Nathan agreed to take off five days from work and be my crew and pacer. So I trained for six more months. Mostly 50 mile weeks, with peak training of 60-80 mile weeks.
November 4th. Race day. Heflin, Alabama. Talladega National Forest. 254 runners would start. 140 would finish.
I’d hydrated well the previous two days. The downside was that I had to urinate a lot and at 12:30am found myself wide awake with unanswerable questions. I fell back to sleep at 1:30.
I didn’t need the alarm. At 4am, I was awake again. It was time to get up. I took a comfort shower and began preparing for the 200,000+ steps it would take for me to reach the finish line. I was asking a lot of my body, so I wanted to treat it well. I toweled off, put on my dry fit shorts and shirt, and started working on my feet.
“Take care of your feet and your feet will take care of you.”
I hadn’t taken good care of my feet at Cruel Jewel, and I paid a heavy price. Blisters on toes and both heels and four lost toenails, due to blood pooling. That added a level of pain to my final 15 miles that I didn’t want to repeat. So this time, I applied A&D ointment to both feet, put protective bandaids on vulnerable toes and blister guards on my heels. There are numerous creek crossings on the Pinhoti trail, but I’m a veteran rock hopper and log crosser, so my plan was to find a route to keep my feet dry.
It was time for my final pre-race meal. There was a 24-hour IHOP next door to our hotel. I woke up my son Nathan and told him I was headed over there for eggs and pancakes. I could eat, so long as it was more than two hours before race time. I’d carbed up the day before, so went for comfort food.
I got back at 5am and checked over my running vest: salt tabs, wet wipes, gels, nut bars, electrolyte fluids, music. All good. The night before, Nathan and I had gone over his crew pack. 50 gels, 20 nut bars/waffles, 12 packs of electrolyte powder, three gallons of water, first aid kit. The cooler contained four mason jars of chicken/vegetable soup and bone broth. Stove, jetboil for coffee and soup, lighters, two extra pairs of running shoes with wicking socks, two extra shirts, trekking poles.
Since he was both crew and pacer, he had to pack his running belt and gear too. The plan was that he would crew me until mile 55, run with me until mile 85, drive to the finish and run back 3-5 miles, meet me between mile 96-98, and escort me across the finish…if I made it that far.
The drive to the start took longer than we anticipated. The GPS coordinates we entered took us down some bumpy dirt roads. It was now 6:40am. Start time was 7am. We parked and briskly walked a half mile to where 25 nervous runners were lined up at the three stall state park bathroom. The other 200+ were already gathering at the start. At 6:54, I made it to the bathroom. At 6:57, I headed to the starting line. Nate and I found our fellow Trailheads from Chapel Hill and greeted them with adrenaline filled hugs. I was feeling a little crowded, so I moved up a little and as the countdown started, I was about a third of the way back from the front. 5..4..3..2..1. Finally!
How lucky I was to be healthy enough to attempt this, to have Nathan and the Trailheads helping, to have volunteers at aid stations to feed me, to have gorgeous weather and a full moon forecast, to have the equipment I needed, to be on this beautiful trail with kind people.