Trails Collective

The Twisting Branch Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts by Trails Collective athlete Clem Chung. Click here for Part 1.

Now that fall is here, these days it’s so hard to get out of bed in the mornings. The weather is getting cooler, and run before work requires the use of lights and reflective gear. The biggest thing stopping me going out for a run at my preferred time, though, is not having a purpose.

I’m a mediocre runner, quite literally in the middle of most packs. I took up running about 5 years ago; like many people, I started with the shorter distances on the roads and an aim to get faster – much easier to do for a beginner when every race results in a PR! Eventually, I moved up to marathons, and around the same time started exploring trails and ultras.

Based on recommendations from experienced trail running friends, I had planned to try my hand at the Green Lakes 50k. This was in 2020, so like most races, COVID wrecked my plans when the race was canceled 3 weeks out. Since I didn’t want to waste my fitness, I ended up designing my own 50k route linking some local trails with my house, and finished my first unofficial ultra.

At the time I was planning on increasing my distances annually, hitting one big milestone per year: 50k, 50 miler, 100k, 100 miler. The 7 hours it took me to run this solo 50k effort, though, made me reconsider – I didn’t know what I was doing and it was a somewhat miserable experience. I figured if 100 miles was the final destination, I might as well get it over with. So the following year, I participated in my first official trail race: the Mighty Mosquito solo 100 miler.

I wrote an extensive race report about it, but the short version is I DNFed at mile 79 with a quad/knee injury I had been carrying for 40 miles. Despite the result and the pain, I felt a true accomplishment in my effort, which contrasts with how I’m feeling about my Twisted Branch experience a year later. Why do I look more fondly on an objective failure than an objective success?

Although the 100 miler was my main target, my other goals for 2021 were to run a sub-4 hour marathon (which I accomplished at Philadelphia in November), and to total 2,021 miles for the year. Determined to learn from my mistakes, I decided Twisted Branch was not only going to be my primary goal for 2022, it would be my only goal. I registered as soon as UltraSignup opened up, giving me eight months to get ready. I gave myself a complete mental break from running in January and focused on yoga. Once February rolled around, I started to think about how I was going to train and who I wanted to help me.

In preparing for Philly last year, I was lucky to find a PT, Carly, who simultaneously helped me recover from my Mighty Mosquito injury and build strength and fitness in time to run a 10 minute PR. Believing my hydration and nutrition game was holding me back, I also got support from Jen, a registered dietitian who came highly recommended by the winner of the 100-miler that I DNFed.

I knew I wanted to include both Carly and Jen on my journey, but I had a feeling I might also benefit from an ultrarunner coach who knew what it took to run tough long distance races. On paper, Twisted Branch isn’t the most difficult 100k in the country – it’s a net downhill, with about 11,000 feet of total climb. There’s a reason, though, why it’s the only Western States qualifier in New York State. Experienced runners talk about how deceptive it can be, with unforgiving climbs and energy-sapping sun exposure on long road sections.

While checking out coaching teams I had read or heard about, Jim Sweeney’s name popped out from Sundog Running’s roster. Jim has won Twisted Branch twice and still holds the course record, and he has also experienced the race under varying conditions across multiple years. If anyone could give me an idea of what to expect, it would be him. Sundog’s tiered levels of service also allowed Jim to work alongside Carly and Jen, so I could continue to draw upon what they already knew about me.

Compared with my preparation for Mighty Mosquito, where I literally took the last 12 weeks of Krissy Moehl’s 48-week plan for your first 100-miler, I now had a team of specialists that I thought might resemble how a pro athlete might approach this task. Since I never considered myself good enough to compete in races, I used to think that only pros deserved this kind of assistance. The more I’ve gotten into this sport, though, the more I realized that once you identify what you want to work on to succeed, it only makes sense to seek out expertise in these areas.

And so, over the next 6 months, I lived in my weekly plan that Jim would write out for me, have Carly check me out as my body adapted, and refined my nutrition with Jen for the demands of the workouts. I had structure, and around that structure I built discipline. I was motivated to get up and log my run, and to build healthy routines (like going to bed early) around that because my time was limited.

For the most part, it worked. Physically, I was able to handle the demands of Twisted Branch (albeit with a lingering concern about my right quad), and I had already started to recover within a couple of days. Contrast that to Mighty Mosquito, where I could barely walk for a week or two. I achieved my primary goal of qualifying for the Western States lottery, so I also had objective validation of my approach.

But I am still sitting here feeling broken by the experience, even now not finding the joy I had during training to go out and face the pavement or the trail. Looking back, I’m wondering if there was more I could have added to my team that could have helped…

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