Considering the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning ?My Thoughts- by Tommy Barlow Class of 2016

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It’s hard to believe, but 5 weeks have passed since I concluded the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, becoming the 18th Utahn and 281st person to do so over the last 30 years. I figured it was time to sit down and attempt to provide an account of the experience, but waited this long because I wanted to give my mind and body a little bit of time to recover and let this summer of running really sink in so that I my recollections would not be clouded by the sheer bliss of having accomplished something that seemed near impossible. Below you will find links that provide a deeper dive into each of the four races that make up the Slam, but the intent of this writing is more geared to the total sum experience of the endeavor in its entirety. My aim is to provide any insights for someone who may be considering the slam, and also to journal my final thoughts so that I can have these memories for me and my family to look back on.

 

LINKS TO DETAILS OF THE RACES AND THE SLAM:

 

Entering the Grand Slam

Western States Video

Vermont Recap

Leadville Race Recap

Wasatch Race Recap

Grand Slam Podcast With Trail Manners (for those who don’t want to read any of this)

Grand Slam Q&A on Inpyn.com

 

 

First off, I can say that this past summer was incredibly challenging, and therefore equally rewarding. I knew I was stepping into something that was over my head, having only completed one ultra marathon at the “distance of truth” of 100 miles prior to starting the Slam. My end result of completing all four races in under 100 total hours and an average finish time of almost exactly 24 hours was pretty unfathomable when I started this journey, and even today I have to pinch myself at times to believe that everything went so well for me. Having had such a positive experience, it’s quite easy for me to say that I would do it all again in a heartbeat, and would recommend to anyone fortunate enough to gain entry to Western States that there simply isn’t any reason to not attempt the slam. Having said all of that, here are a few things to consider:

 

COST

 

To me, economics are simple- you have two resources that you can invest into either things or experiences: 1) time 2) money

 

As a 36-year-old father of 3 children and primary income provider for my family of 5, I don’t have excess of either, therefore my wife and I have to take serious consideration and decide what kind of life we want to architect for ourselves and our children with those resources. While I am fortunate to have a career that allows me to earn what most would consider an above average income, I’m equally fortunate in that my company supports time investments into a work/life balance. I don’t know many people around my age and in my life circumstance who could make the slam work, solely based on the availability of time and money. To give you a closer look, here is what I would say that the Slam “cost” me and my family:

(Bear in mind I live in Utah and could drive to 3 of the 4 races, and was fortunate to have friends allow me to stay a night in California and 3 nights in New Hampshire. I also took my entire family to Leadville)

 

Time

 

I’m really lucky in that I share a passion for endurance sports with my wife, who was really the one who got us started in all of this craziness to begin with. It works for our family to train for 10-20 hours per week because it often becomes “our time” where we talk about things…or don’t talk at all. I was previously training for Ironman triathlons and found that it actually took less time away from family and was less taxing, in that my peak week for the Slam was early spring at around 18 hours and most weeks were less than 10 hours. In Ironman training I was pushing up to 22 hours in a week and averaged over 16, plus all of the logistics of getting to the pool, driving to the group rides, then cramming in runs cost me easily over 20 hours per week. With trail running, my wife and I typically start a run at 5:30 am every morning and are done by 7:30 on the weekdays, then on weekends we do our longer runs that we can start earlier and be home by 11:00 am at the latest. If I didn’t have a spouse who had a similar interest and endurance goals of her own as an ultra runner and running coach, I don’t think the Slam would have worked out so well.

 

Money

 

  • Race registrations: Western Sates $410, Vermont 100 $160, Leadville $330, Wasatch $250– Total: $1,150
  • Travel: Western States $250, Vermont $1,985, Leadville $220, Wasatch $50—Total $2,505
  • Lodging: Western States $350, Vermont $336, Leadville $1,150, Wasatch $0 – Total $1,836
  • Time off work: Fortunately my employer allows unlimited PTO and because I can work remotely I only took days off as follows: Western States 2, Vermont 3, Leadville 2, Wasatch 1 Total– $0 (factor your own based on what scenario you think is realistic but I would say that most people would take Thurs, Fri, Mon off for each race)
  • Dog Kennel/Babysitting: $1,300
  • Appointments/ Massage/ Osteopath for body work: $420

 

Grand Total: $7,211 (add in any time off work)

*This does not include gear, food, training nutrition etc. I would say that personally our budget increased by $100-200 per month on top of what we were already spending

** I had an amazing sponsor in Endurance Athletics (go visit them!!) who provided shoes, socks, shorts, and other gear that would have likely added $1,000. Thank you Tyler!!

*** My dear friend Elizabeth Inpyn provided a nutrition plan to help me get through the rigors of the Slam and let us stay at her family home after WS (go visit her too!!)

 

HEALTH

 

Taking on the GS is something that is taxing on your body. As documented in my race reports, I had a serious hip injury after finishing the Bear 100 in September of 2015, then just 10 days before starting Western States I injured my high hamstring tendon. When I signed up for the slam I wasn’t even able to run a few miles, so it was a hard sell to my wife and even to myself, but I also knew that if the WHY was big enough, I would find out HOW to get my body back to being in shape. I believe that there is a balance between mind and body, and there are equal parts mental and physical to being healthy, and to healing your body after an injury. In a way I feel like I challenged by body by taking on the Slam, and I feel it responded beautifully. I often wonder what shape I would be in today if I had surrendered to my hip injury and decided to take it easy, or to never try another 100 miler.

 

That being said, I would encourage everyone to get really good at listening to your own body and to find a practitioner who can help you work things out that will inevitably come up. In my case I decided to opt for a cortisone shot to deal with the hamstring tendon injury, and worked very closely with an osteopath for my hip and muscle instabilities in general. I booked appointments between each race with Autumn Mayberry  and am convinced that without her help:  a) I wouldn’t have ran another 100 miler after Bear 100    b) I wouldn’t have been able to run all 4 events of the Slam without any subsequent injuries.

 

I found throughout the summer that while my endurance felt like it increased as a result of putting my body through such a test, my body was certainly being taxed and worn down by the sheer cumulative fatigue. If you don’t listen to your body and aggressively find the best recovery plan for yourself, I think that runners could easily end up with adrenal fatigue and numerous muscular/structural injuries that could affect them for years to come. In my case I feel like my hip, knees, and stability muscles are actually better than when I started this journey, and that my hamstring is in about the same spot as when I started. The tendon still flares up and I don’t have much speed in uphill running, but otherwise I didn’t further damage it (or so I believe) and I’m looking forward to getting it back to full strength this offseason.

 

For anyone considering the slam I would offer the following additional recommendations that I believe kept my health optimal to perform: 1) sauna-for heat training and healing at least 2-3 times per week 2) compression boots for flushing lactic acid buildup and general muscle maintenance 3) ice baths- hate them but your body will love them 4) nutrition- you need to take in the right supplements as your regular diet just won’t be enough 5) kinesiology tape- I believe that you can create a sort of “exoskeleton” around key joints to lessen the blow of running 100 miles over mountains 6) don’t run much between races- recovery>gains

 

PAYOFF

 

When you finish the GS, you end up with 4 cool buckles and a bronze eagle trophy…but really those aren’t the return on your investment. For me this summer quickly became a way for me to push through a difficult time where my hero, my dad, lost his leg unexpectedly during a routine knee replacement. Every step became my way of celebrating my own ability and trying to show my dad that we can do hard things in life. He was no stranger to difficulty prior to this loss, but at times this challenge has brought one of the strongest men I’ve ever met down to tears and feelings of helplessness. Our celebration at the finish of Wasatch is something I will never forget as we both took some big literal and figurative steps that day. Find your WHY, make it a big reason, and the Slam will be an amazing experience that you will cherish.

 

Beyond that, my children learned that even adults take on challenges that scare us to death. I shared my reservations with each of my children that daddy could potentially not finish any one of the races, and that my quest could come to an abrupt end in perceived failure, but I told them that nothing would stop me from giving it my best attempt. Failure is okay, but not giving one’s full effort is not. At the end of each race I wanted nothing more than to share the finish with my kids and my dad because I truly felt that it was “our” Grand Slam.

 

On an individual personal level, I can say that my return was far greater than the investment this summer. I learned more about myself than almost any other time in my life. I’ve found that the times when I feel most challenged and overwhelmed are truly the times when I grow the most. The biggest takeaway for me is that I am now more aware of how much power each of us possess in our our will and determination. We all hear the phrase “where there is a will, there is a way”, but I feel like this summer I got to LIVE that phrase. I will never count myself out, no matter how dire the situation or dark the moment because I trust in my own resilience.

 

Final Thoughts

 

I loved the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. Every race, every step, every moment. When you pour so much of yourself into something and it turns out better than any of your expectations you find a little magic that sticks with you throughout your life. For me, it was this summer and it will give me and my family strength for years to come. I want to end simply by thanking everyone who was a part of it because I didn’t do any of it alone.

 

Comment please!