Monday, August 3, 2009
Jason Sissel

"Better never to begin; if begun, better to finish." says a Taoist teaching.  So it goes, completing the first two extremely challenging days comprised of 6.2 miles of swimming and 260 miles of cycling was not enough to be happy about.  We needed to put each of those days behind us as soon as they ended and get ready to slay the last dragon: Day 3's double marathon (52.4mi).

But as I've said in previous postings, I am not a natural distance runner.  In fact, Distance Running and I generally have had a tough relationship.  Coming into Ultraman, I figured that today naturally would be my biggest physical challenge since my longest journey with Distance Running has only been 26.2mi–half as far as we'd need to go today.  Plus, my relationship with Distance Running would have to be on my terms if an Ultraman finish was going to be a reality. I knew I would have to fight back hard, and win, to earn Distance Running's respect.

Day 3 started out with mild temperatures.  The terrain consisted of smooth concrete paved over very soft rolling hills and flats, and then became much more undulating as the miles built.  At approximately 22 miles, the course transitioned to a gravel logging road that cut through British Columbian countryside so beautiful you would think God would choose this as His primary residence.  This part of the course was rocky, sometimes with sandy and washboard-like terrain.  It also was home to climbs and decents up mountainsides so steep basically any part of your lower body and core would get a rude awakening if they've been asleep on the job.

Everything seemed to start off well, I felt surprisingly good and was running along chatting it up with a few inspiring people in multi-Ultraman finishers Todd Crandell and Darwin Holt.  Time was rolling by and the first several miles were clicking off.  Then Todd and Darwin quickened their pace a bit and I fell off the wagon around 5 miles into the run.  Darwin assured me that my form was looking great, so I kept running along with what I felt to be good rhythm and pace.  Around 11 miles, people were passing me even though I felt like I hadn't changed my pace.  By mile 14, my crew vehicle stopped and Paul, my good friend and trusted crew member, got out and was in his running gear.  I knew I must be looking tired.  Paul's longest run to date was 26.2 miles so I figured there was no way he could pull 38-plus miles to carry me all the way in!  The little green monsters of doubt were starting to raise their ugly heads; and in our sandbox, Distance Running was once again not playing nice in the sandbox.  What was I going to do?  I wasn't going to have anyone to pace me when I needed it most.  I just kept running.

We ran along and eked-out the miles and next thing I knew we were deep into the 30s but still a long way to go.  The temperature was once again back up into the high 90s and it was taking its toll on me.  But we kept our focus on the pristine scenery of the countryside while we shared stories.  We were forming a bond of respect we may very well carry on for the rest of our lives for reasons which follow.  We were beginning to feel relatively close to the finish but time was not on our side.  With about 40 miles complete, I was averaging roughly 13:45min/mi pace (including stops/walks) which was about as high as you can get and still make it before the 12hr cutoff time.  Remember that this is my first time running over 26.2mi so I had to watch my pace and also save energy to greatly increase that pace towards the end if I needed to do so.  The reality of a finish was drawing closer but there was still a lot of work left to do before that becomes reality.

And I was hurting.  With 10k remaining and going down a steep downhill, Paul warned me that I was doomed if I stop to walk or take a break.  I was trailing Paul by about 15ft and he suddenly turns around casually running backwards as if he just started running on fresh legs and yells, "You have 10k remaining and this is going to be the hardest, most painful 10k of your life.  You can hate me now and thank me later.  But if you want this you cannot stop for anything now.  I know you can do it; I believe in you."

I'm trying my best but I'm starting to feel like I'm going to explode from the heat; the previous two days of work seemed to be catching up to me.  I was once again hearing the voices of doubt and was trying to just let them go.  I felt like I  on the brink of entering a "zone," but could I maintain a 9+min/mi pace for 5 more miles after already running over 47?  The bad guys were trying to tell me I couldn't.  They were saying I had just missed the cutoff and better luck next year.  Paul yelled again, "HOW BAD DO YOU WANT IT, JAY?  HOW BAD DO YOU WANT TO BE AN ULTRAMAN?  I AM GOING TO BE LIVID IF I RAN ALL THIS WAY FOR NOTHING!  I WANT TO TELL MY FRIENDS I RAN 39 MILES WITH AN ULTRAMAN!"  Those bad voices subsided for a bit.  I could now hear the good voices in my head.  I visualized hearing people cheer as I come in raising the E2C flag above my head at the finish line.  I saw myself tell this very story to children at pediatric cancer hospitals about giving all your effort despite the odds and knowing that it give them hope that they can also overcome.  I visualized reading stories people wrote to us about their own accounts of doing something they were scared to do and their ensuing success. I believed I could do this.

This battle between Distance Running and I went back and forth but I was winning.  This is the mean game Distance Running plays when it knows I want something but doesn't want to share.  Suddenly, with about 4mi left I had to stop to pee.  I told Paul I was going to do this right as I started and even though this would only add 20 seconds or so to my time, when I looked up at him, I was on the receiving end of a death stare.  We communicated without saying a word and it went something like this:

Paul -- "Didn't you hear me the first time?  I said if you stop for anything you probably won't make it and if you do it again you will get a beat down courtesy of me."

Jay: "Got it. It's not happening again."

And it didn't.  One mile later I looked down and saw my right shoelace untied.  Well, too bad...I hope my shoe doesn't fall off and I suddenly have to run barefoot because I don't have time to tie it.  I realize this seems strange but I felt like my shoe was naturally snug enough to get by.  Plus, I don't know how much time I have left and I didn't come this far to miss being an official finisher by mere seconds or a minute or two.  I want this "victory" for the foundation and for what we represent, not for me.

Paul knows how much time I have and the pace I'm on but he's not telling me because I don't want to know.  I'm running with all heart right now.  I am running to fulfill the mission of E2C – my only purpose right now.  "Oh no," I'm thinking.  I look down and the other shoe is now untied.  How much further??  I heard a false "another mile ahead" a couple times.  Paul was pushing a hard pace and I was "red-lining" it and couldn't keep this up for much longer.  He turned around and I heard him yell, "I WANT TO SEE YOUR TOENAILS HANGING OUT, JAY.  LEAVE NOTHING IN THE TANK! FINISH WHAT YOU CAME TO DO."  I didn't know if Paul was playing a sick joke on me or if he was serious, so I just took it as serious to limit my risk of missing the cutoff.  The last thing I wanted to do was come up seconds or a couple minutes short.  I felt like I was turning into a Kenyan but unfortunately without that floating-on-air stride sort of look.

I was almost there.  I could see people now.  I turned the corner and other finishers and crew team members were there to cheer me in before the 12 hours expires.  I was in a weird state.  I couldn't hear anything; I was just running straight ahead to the finish line.  I got there holding our E2C flag above my head and all I heard was someone say, "A few more steps!"  Apparently I wasn't quite across the finish line yet.  I took a few more steps and I literally passed out and fell to the ground.  I went unconscious for probably 30 seconds and woke up but couldn't say anything.  I couldn't remember people's names at first, even my crew members.  It was scary.  I could feel my body but I couldn't move.  I was spent.

A few minutes later, I came to my senses and was reintroduced to my crew and other athletes and felt like I was back to normal again.  I also learned that by beating the cutoff time by 3 minutes and 25 seconds that I earned a spot among the very few all time finishers who attempt Ultraman (I believe less than 400 people in the world have finished an Ultraman).

This day was a great one.  One in which I realized the true meaning of Vince Lombardi's quote: "I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is the moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle–victorious."  If you'd like to see for yourself check this out. Apparently somebody caught the finish on camera and uploaded it to YouTube.

Further, a friend sent me a post from an endurance athletics forum regarding Ultraman Canada and one person had this to say regarding my finish:

That drop and roll was not for style points. At that point I’m pretty sure Jason didn’t know where he was. When we last saw him at around mile 13 he was hurting and I would have bet big that he would not make it, but his team and his heart got him there. Very impressive.
— Anonymous

Yes, this person was absolutely correct: it was all team and heart that got the job done. Without my crew, Paul Zirlin and Bob Shanks, I doubt I would have made the cutoff in time. Without our supporters and those who offered motivation along the way, it would have been much more difficult. Nobody makes it without their crew, nobody makes it without a higher purpose. It's as simple as that. But come on, "bet big that he wouldn't make it!?" I wasn't going to let that happen, my friend; I'm doing these events with a burning fire from within and with a limitless vision.

About Jason Sissel
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