Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Pinhoti 100 November 3-4, 2012

Where do I start with this one? I am now 2 1/2 days removed from completing the race, and as usual, my emotions are still a swirl. This is not going to be my typical race report with a chronology of events from start to finish, the race just doesn’t unfold that way in my head this time.

 Monday, 11/5, 7:00 PM
I made the mistake of trying to work today. I almost always take the Monday following a hundred miler off, but I felt like too much was going on and tried to work anyway. Without much luck or productivity. It is early evening, the kids are in the living room finishing their homework, and I am lying in bed like a beached whale with little hope of returning successfully to the sea. I am so tired I can barely keep my head up, I feel like a herd of elephants is resting on me. I want to fall asleep (for my fourth nap of the day), but shooting pains in my feet keeping me writhing around the bed. I am tired, frustrated, and in complete disbelief that I keep doing this to myself. What the hell? I love running. There are few things I’d rather be doing than running. I drive Sandra nuts every time a picturesque scene comes up in a movie, on TV, in a commercial, in a magazine, wherever. My response is pure Pavlov’s dog, she can say the line before I do: “I want to run there!” I love running long distances, and I even more love running on trails and seeing new places. But none of that means I have to enter hundred milers. 50Ks are a great challenge. 50 milers leave me tired, but satisfied. I can recover from those races fairly quickly. I don’t lose time from work, I don’t feel like death warmed over. I am too old for this, I can’t recover fast enough anymore. I need to break this cycle of despair, find a better outlet for my energies. If I can just get some good rest tonight, I’ll think clearer on new outlets tomorrow.

Sunday, 11/4, 8:45 AM
I am moving down the side of Old Talladega Highway at a snail’s pace. I have run 100 miles, and have just about a half-mile into the high school football stadium and around the track to the finish. I’ve figured out I can walk the last mile and still break 28 hours. I know from the last aid station that Patrick Bene finished well ahead of me and is probably either in the RV taking a shower, or in the rec center eating a post-race breakfast. When we separated 3 hours ago, he know I was done-for, there was no reason to expect me to finish. Sure there would be a handful of people at the track in the early morning mist and light rain. I just needed to cross that finish line, even if none of them knew me. I put my head down and broke into a trot, no one was going to see me walk it in. As I cut through the fence towards the stadium, a dozen people started cheering, I trudged on. But then I turned the corner and saw our crew, George & George on the track. I picked up the pace when I realized “my people” were there. Finishing had become as important for them as it had me. My heart leapt when Patrick came back around a corner when he heard them call my name. I race across the finish line. 27 hours, 55 minutes. No impressive time, but I finished. Todd Henderson, the race director handed me my buckle, a gold-plated affair, nicer than any of the other races I have run. Patrick and I limped towards each other and embraced in a bear hug. We had both finished, both done what we came to do. At that moment, I loved him like a brother again. We ran all of a Vermont 100, several 50Ks and numerous marathons together, all stride for stride. That had been our plan today as well, but I had sent him ahead at mile 88. It is hard to describe the bond that forms when you run those distances together. But we both felt it now and were overjoyed to be successful – and done.


Sunday, 11/4, 2:00 AM
We are over 75 miles in, somewhere past the never ending climb to The Pinnacle aid station where GUTS gave us friend-egg sandwiches off the grill which rank among the best meals I’ve ever had. We are meandering through various small climbs and descents on our way to Power Line aid station at mile 79.5. Patrick has been struggling with equilibrium for hours. First he needs salt, then he needs sugar, then he needs fluids, then we need to repeat. It feels like we haven’t run ten consecutive minutes since sunset 8 hours ago without him breaking into a walk and whining about one of those needs. Our aid station breaks have gone from 2-3 minutes, to 10 minutes plus as he lays there trying to recover. In fairness, the conditions were tough. The temperatures hit 85 in the midafternoon, and didn’t drop below 70 that night until just before dawn. I had sweat pouring off of me the entire night. Patrick isn’t going to make it. I knew his ironman training wouldn’t translate into a solid hundred miler, not without more trail runs. I am just sick of him at this point. Why won’t he just quit and let me get going on my own? He is killing my time. I bark for about the eightieth time, “Come on P! Let’s get going!” I turn around 30 seconds later, he is still lagging fifty yards back. “Come on! Let’s Go!” His reply is clear. “Fuck you. Can’t I take a second to get some sugar in me?” I grit my teeth and bite my tongue, I am furious. We pull into Power Line and Patrick insists on another sit down break in the tent. I eat some food, refill my bottles, check my Endurolytes, all in under 90 seconds. I am ready to go. But I look over at Patrick and he is fighting back a sneeze and hasn’t even begun to refuel. I sit down next him in sullen silence. On his 8th sneeze, I am tempted to tell him he wouldn’t be sneezing so much if he had trained better. Finally he is ready to go and we set off down the rocky jeep road towards the last descent. Patrick tries to start a conversation but I don’t respond. “What, are you not talking to me now” I lied and responded, “No, just trying to get my head together for this leg”. We run in near silence for an hour.

 Friday, 11/2 – 11:00 AM
We are in the RV headed north and west towards Sylacauga, the finish for the race. We started yesterday and spent the night in a Cracker Barrel parking lot just south of Valdosta. We are going up with George Cobb and George Buffington as crew. Neither is an ultrarunner or has been to a hundred mile race before, but they are looking forward to the challenge. Patrick and I are plotting strategy and logistics. Okay, I will be more honest, I am planning strategy and logistics, and running each and every phase of the race planning by Patrick. And then changing it again. I’ve been to this course twice before. I DNF’d at mile 86 in 2010, and in 2011 I helped pace Greg Vannette over his last 59 miles for a sub 24 hour finish. I know this course, I know the training we put in, I know what a reasonable time goal should be 26-27 hours. But the camaraderie of the drive, the anticipation of the challenge, the spirit of the competition with Patrick all get to me. We plan out how we are going to finish in 24 hours. We are great athletes, we can do this. We just have to race smart.

 Sunday, 11/4 – 5:00 AM
We’ve just come down off the ridgeline to the Bull Run aid station at mile 86. The generator ran out of gas, so there are no lights and no hot food. But George and George are there like clockwork. It turns out they had gotten into the spirit of the competition as well. They were determined to be the best crew on the course. They led a caravan of other crews to each aid station, and then raced to the tents to position two chairs for us closer to the camp fire, closer to the food and drink than everyone else. They had drink refills ready to go. They offered Boosts, Starbucks double-shots, Monster energy, food, salt; you name it, they had it. In typical ultra-fashion, as the race wore on, we became more needy, and our voices more shrill. And they would jump up and race off to grab whatever we needed, without question. It was unquestionably great crewing, made all the more remarkable for their virginity.

This was the first time they had seen us in over 5 hours, and I looked (and felt) like crap. We both knew now our race strategy had been poor, to the extreme. We went too hard, for too long, too early. We did not have enough left in the tank for down the stretch. Before I could consider a DNF at the same place I dropped 2 years ago, I jumped up and started walking down the trail. Patrick soon caught me and we tried to set a decent pace. But I just couldn’t pull it together. My head was swimming, my legs were dead, there was no run left in me. Even as daylight broke, I could not find any energy. I finally convinced Patrick he had to go ahead, I was going to jeopardize him making the 30 hours cutoff. I promised him I would keep going (I was lying), but he had to move. He took off, and I kept walking. My heart began to sink. I was going to DNF this stupid course again. For the first time in 25 hours I had stopped sweating, now I was cold. I put on a long sleeve shirt for the first time since the first 10 minutes of the race. I check my watch and calculated how much was left in this 4 mile leg. If I got to the next aid station by 25:40, I still had a legitimate shot of finishing in under 30 hours. If not, as I predicted, as I was done. I trudged onward at a slow walk.

 Saturday, 11/3 – 10:00 AM
We are still in the early stages of the race, there are still bunches of runners together. As usual, Patrick and I have a group around us. His voice carries (just ask the deer who I NEVER see anywhere when we train together), and he remains so damn positive (except when his sugar level is low), that we attract a crowd at nearly every race. I don’t have to say much, I just egg him on. And the banter ensues. People ask how long we keep this going, and I tell them we are just getting warmed up; Patrick will talk for 30 hours if he is allowed to. George and George said we became known at the aid stations as “The Green Shirt Boys” as we both wore lime green shirts that day. Patrick would announce his race number coming into each aid station as if speaking through a bull horn. “THIRTY-SEVEN!!!” I like to think we give a lot of energy to the runners around us. But in truth, I think we feed off that energy as much as anyone, it is fun running in those crowds. Talking to all the runners from different places is a big part of the fun. Anastasia from Ohio who had just completed the Mid-Western Slam, was working on her sixth hundred of 2012 and friended us on FB just hours after the race. Young Andy who had to be 6’ 4” and had 5 different pacers to bring him in the last 59 miles, including his wife for one leg. Jason, of the Slug Club, who finished his first 100 last year at Pinhoti while weighing 280 lbs. and was back this year to try his luck at 230 (he finished behind Patrick and ahead of me). It is amazing how many miles can get eaten up in just good conversation.

 Sunday, 11/4 – 6:25 AM
To my amazement, aid station 17, Rocky Mountain Church has just come into view. This is 90 miles in, there are less than 11 left to go. I have been walking and shivering for what seemed like forever. It is a very small aid station with no crews allowed. There was one vehicle, a small tent, and 2 volunteers. I was 15 minutes ahead of my self-imposed cutoff and started to reconsider dropping. As I approached they asked me how I was doing.
“Not so well, I have been walking for an hour.”
“Well you are almost done, just over 10 miles to go.”;
“My legs are toast, I am not sure I can keep going.”;
“Well, it is just the two of us here. There is no one to drive you, you can’t stop here. Would you like some coffee?”;
“I don’t need coffee, I need to stop.”;
“You can’t stop here. Here is your coffee.”;
I drank the coffee, took my last ibuprofen and stared down the road where they pointed I should go. I gave it a try. After a minute I started to trot as it was a slight downhill. After a few more minutes my legs loosened up and I started to run. Soon I was passing runners who had passed me on the previous leg. Then I passed runners I hadn’t seen since earlier in the race. I realized I was even running the uphills. I had new legs. I was going to finish! I don’t know where it came from, I never know where it comes from. But I was back on the high and cruising in. The elation at this realization is always a wonderful feeling. I can do this.

 Tuesday, 11/6 – 6:30 PM
I am just finishing my race report. I am left with just as many questions about myself as I had going in. Am I an elite athlete who just finished his ninth hundred miler, and fourth this year? Or I am fooling myself with another weak performance, well off the goals I set for myself? Am I building a stronger sense of fortitude and perseverance as I continue to find ways to pull myself out of a mid-race funk? Or do I still have the weak disposition that puts me in jeopardy to begin with? Wouldn’t a stronger person pull through those lows with less self-doubt and loathing? Am I building my personal karma by being a proponent of these races, and reaching out to the runners around me, giving (sometimes unwanted) advice and encouragement to those less experienced than me? Or do I remain a self-centered and impatient jerk who lashes out at this best friends at moments of weakness in races?

I don’t have clear-cut answers to any of those questions today. But I know a little more about myself than I did going in. I have a little more self-awareness of what I do well, and what I do extremely poorly. Maybe over the long term, that will add up to positive change. In the interim, I know a few things. Nothing else challenges me the way these races do, I can’t think of anything else that will cut me to the quick and force me to come to grips with the questions above as running hundred does. I believe I have become a better father, a better husband, and a better employee through running. And I know this: Patrick and I are both qualified for Massanutten and Western States for 2013, and we are both entering the lotteries for each. I hope one or both of us get in. I look forward to running with my friend again.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Travel Run Update #5 – Salt Lake City / Wasatch 09/13/2012 – 09/15/2012

We arrived home from Napa Monday morning.  I had just enough time to unpack, repack, and head back to the airport 2 hours later to go to Dallas for work.  Two days of meetings there went very long and I did not run as I had hoped.  But no worries, I will be back there next week for pleasure and plan to run Lake Grapevine.  From Dallas, I headed out to Salt Lake City for more meetings.  I have never been to SLC before, but I had been on the ground less than an hour before I decided I was in love with the place.  The vistas are spectacular, especially the Wasatch front to the east, and there are trails, paved and unpaved everywhere

Thursday morning I had meetings, so had no time to get up into the mountains.  But I set out from my hotel and within ½ mile was running along the Jordan River Trail which bisects the city north-south and is 39 miles long.  The trail is flat for most of the distance, so the easier terrain made for some faster (as always, this is a relative term for me) running.  Sometimes the trail ran right next to the river, sometimes it meandered away with dozen of yards of cattails and river grasses in between.  I couldn’t believe what a natural setting it made right in the middle of the city.  Up above, I could see the mountains in every direction (except Great Salt Lake itself, well off to the northwest).  And around me, it appeared I was in the country.  I passed cow fields and horse pastures, with both stopping to watch me pass by.   The river way could easily be called a bird sanctuary as there were thousands of them, of every kind, passing overhead and drowning me in their calls.  Just before my turnaround 6 miles south, I even saw a red fox cross the trail ahead of me just after passing several deer.  12.1 miles in 1:45, this was my fastest run of my travels.

Less than 24 hours later, I was back at it Friday morning.  This time I arose early and started pre-dawn from the entrance to Bells Canyon west, and just a little north from my hotel.  The trailhead starts at 5,200 feet and eventually climbs to over 11,000 feet and the peak of Thunder Mountain.  I knew I didn’t have time to get all the way up and back down before work, but I thought I could make much of it.  I soon knew I was wrong.  The websites I had read described alpine meadows, and I had visions of open fields with long vistas, like Julie Andrews in Sound of Music.   Less than a mile in, the trail turned into one long, mad rock scramble.   I didn’t so much run or walk, as I did hop.  I was feeling both the climb and the altitude as I ascended, and had to stop around the 7,300 foot mark.  By now, the sun had just risen and I had a beautiful early morning view back down into the valley.

I turned back down the mountain, and found I had a harder time going down than I had going up.  Most of the trail parallels a stream cascading down the mountain.  The running water, and little waterfalls proved a frequent, and often dangerous distraction from focusing on my footing.   I eventually reached the base of the rocky section and looked back up the trail into the canyon Ihad just climbed. 

Only 6.5 miles in 2:10 of running.  But as I drove back to my hotel, I was amazed this kind of trail was accessible less than 15 minutes from the center of the city, and I would be on time for work afterwards.  Just 8 hours later, I was headed out for a Friday afternoon jaunt up another mountain.  This time I was headed west and south and intended to run the BST trail which meanders around the foothills along the edge of the Wasatch without nearly as much elevation change.  I figured I needed an easier run to recover from the morning’s effort.  But less than ½ mile in I saw a sign for “Copper Canyon Logging Trail”.  Looking up, I could see the switchback going straight up the mountain. 

I suddenly had a flashback to running the Vortex with the “harder / easier” signs.  And as all FURs know, always choose Harder.  So up I went.   At first, I thought I would only go up for 30 minutes, and then return back down to run the flatter sections.  But 45 minutes passed, and then an hour.  Each time I crested a ridge, I would see another slope that didn’t look too far ahead and I pressed on.  Soon I passed the 2 hour mark of climbing and had finally reached my alpine meadows.  Lone Peak was just ahead and above me.

It was spectacular.  But I knew it was probably several more miles of trekking and a couple thousand feet above me.  I looked back and saw the sun headed down towards the Uinta mountains to the west.  I was running out of daylight.  I had a flashlight with me, but didn’t particularly want to descend that mountain in the dark.  I had climbed from 4,800 feet up to just over 8,600 when I turned back.  I descended faster than I thought I could, and still had time to do a quick 2-mile jaunt on the flatter sections in the fading twilight. 

 11.5 miles in 3:48 this time, with over 4,000 feet of elevation change.  I felt great.  Less than 10 hours later, I was back in the car, Saturday morning, headed for another run.  This time, I went to Dimple Dell, which bisects the city east/west, and was less than 5 minutes from my hotel.   The park is a deep ravine through the valley that was not suitable for housing.  So instead, it became another beautiful park with miles and miles of single track crisscrossing it. I danced back and forth across the stream at the bottom in the pre-dawn light and spooked a huge, 8-point buck just in front of me.  I am not sure why he ran, he outweighed me by 100 lbs. and his rack would have gored me through and through.  Alas, I could not get the camera out in time for a shot.   On the way west and then north through the L-shaped park, I found there were 4 primary trails (with many other connectors and offshoots).    

One followed the stream at the bottom, one followed the hillside near the bottom, a third tracked the ravine closer to the top, and the last tracked along the top on flat ground.  I stayed on the third trail as much as possible which wound in and around one bluff after another and up and down dozens of little ascents.  At the far north of the park, I circled around and down into the ravine at the bottom and returned alongside the stream.  I was having so much fun, I took every offshoot trail I could find and often found myself doubling back to repeat.  13 miles and 2:42 later, I was back at the rental car with just enough time to shower and get to the airport for my return to Tampa.  13 miles in a city park, and I don’t think I even saw half the trails. 

In the end, I did 4 runs in just over 48 hours totaling 43 miles and almost 7,000 feet of elevation change.  All of that was within 30 minutes of downtown and the airport.  I am in love with SLC.  And the Wasatch 100 just moved way up my bucket list.

Travel Run Update #4: Napa Valley 09/06/2012 & 09/08/2012

We spent the next week in Napa and Sonoma valleys, touring wineries, and doing what you are supposed to do there.  We rented a house just outside of the town of Napa in Wild Horse Valley.  We were at the very end of the road, tucked away in the hills on a horse farm next to a lake, with no noise and no neighbors.  The owner told me about a trail he had created over the years that led to the ridgeline behind us and overlooked Napa Valley.  He said you can see all the way to Mt Helena in the north end of the valley, and to the south, you could see to San Francisco Bay (and supposedly on a clear day all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge).

Unfortunately, my intake of the Napa product line led to me only running two mornings.  But one chilly morning I did run up and along the ridgeline as suggested.  He had cut a rough trail, so the going was slow, and I got pretty scratched up from the bushes.  I tried a number of the game trails that cut across it, only to hit dead ends when the trail required a creature much shorter than me to pass.  5 miles of rocky ups and downs later, I  was back at the chalet and ready for my next winery.  On our final morning, I decided to run the road down towards Napa, and back.  The first mile was a little bit of ups and downs, and I worked up the pace slowly, trying to overcome wine grogginess.  But the road descends 1200 feet towards the valley floor in the next 2 miles, and I was soon pounding down the pavement at breakneck speed (for me) trying to hold the switchback curves on the road.  I reached 3 miles in just under 23  minutes and decided that was far enough.  I turned and headed back up the hill and was soon huffing and puffing.  The return trip took 35 minutes, over 50% slower than the descent.  6 miles in 58 minutes total.  Only 2 runs in 6 days in Napa, but I was happy with the effort.

Travel Run Update #3: Half-Dome Yosemite 09/03/2012

I guess it is a sign that I am getting that older that not only do I have a formal bucket-list, but I am adding more items each year than crossing off.   On the running front, I have a list of MUST-do’s which are mostly races.  I will run the Western States 100 if it takes me 10 consecutive entries to get in.  Leadville, Hardrock, Wasatch, and Mont Blanc are all on the list too.   But there are other incredible places to run that don’t involve a race.  Yosemite has always been high on that list for me, and if you are going to Yosemite, the climb to Half-Dome is clearly the premier opportunity.    I did as much research as I could and found that the last 600 feet to the summit involves a cable climb for which there is a lottery.  Each spring, roughly 300 daily spots are given out for the season, I had long missed that.  But as the season wears on, people drop, and a new, smaller lottery is held daily, 48 hours in advance for the last 40-60 spots.   I put my entry in Saturday morning (best $5.50 I ever spent) and received my winning email that night.  Needless to say, the 5 hour flight from DC to San Francisco was stressful for Sandra as she sat next to me.  I was a jittery mess as I planned and re-planned my route, timing and strategy; as well as trying to memorize the course.  We drove to Yosemite that afternoon, toured much of the valley and walked several miles to Yosemite Falls (dry), Yosemite lodge (unremarkable except for the views), hung out with the forest rangers watching a black bear searching for apples in a tree, and had dinner at the Ahwahnee Lodge (spectacular).    But at every turn, I would look up at Half-Dome looming over the valley, and start chattering.  I think when she dropped me off the next morning, Sandra would have been OK with the idea that I got lost in the woods for a few days.

The next morning, she dropped me off at Curry Village campground (the very same campground where 3 people recently died from the Han-tu virus contracted from mice urine in tents)  just before 5 AM. We were meeting friends in Napa Valley for the balance of our vacation that afternoon, and I had a limited time window to get to the top.  The guidebooks and online info, all said it is a full day hike, 10-12 hours at a minimum,  But I had also found that the all-time record is under 3 hours.  I figured I would try to do it in 5-6 hours, with 3+ up and 2+ coming down.  I told Sandra I would be back by 11 AM at the latest and would meet her at Ahwahnee lodge where we had dinner the night before.   I fretted over my supplies, making sure everything was just so; until Sandra pointed out that several people had gone by on the trail and were building a lead on me.  I had vowed to be the first person at the cables that morning, and now that was in jeopardy.  Sandra's prompt worked, and off I went.

The first mile up to Happy Isles is a gentle incline and I trotted along at a slow pace.   But the trail turned steeply uphill after that, and I was reduced to walking for much of the climb.  Yosemite Valley itself is around 4,000 feet in elevation, and the 8 mile climb to Half-Dome ascends 4,800 feet to 8,800.  I tried to balance giddy exuberance against relentless forward progress.  Just a couple miles up the trail, it splits.  You can take the longer, but less steep John Muir Trail, or proceed on the shorter, steeper Mist Trail, which as the name implies, takes you through the shadow of two waterfalls.   I took the Mist Trail as planned and reached the first of the falls, still in the pitch black after passing a number of hikers (I WILL be first up).  Vernal Falls drop 317 feet, and from below are fantastic, even in the deep gloom of night.  The series of stone stairs carved in the rock face to the right was one long quad-burning session to reach the top.   I paused at the top to remove my long sleeve shirt that was now drenched in sweat, despite the below 50 degree temps. 

When I started back up again, I got a little mixed up.  I struggled for a few minutes to find the trail above the falls, and when a bridge crossed over the Merced River, I was sure I was in the wrong place.  I was (mistakenly) certain the trail stayed on the right side of the falls.  When the second waterfall, Nevada Falls came into view ahead I was sure (but still mistaken) I was in the wrong place.  I humped back downhill 10 minutes, fretting I had lost ground on other hikers.    I crossed back over the bridge and embarked on what turned out to be the Clark Trail which bisects the other two trails between the falls.  But it wasn’t until I reach the top of Nevada Falls that I was sure of my mistake.  Now, I had added at least a mile or two to my journey, and endangered my total time.   I had committed to turning around at 3.5 hours, whether I had reached the top or not.   Fortunately, the next couple miles  around the back side of Half-Dome were a shallower ascent and somewhat runnable.  I passed a few backpackers breaking camp after their breakfast, and their compliments on running only spurred me to go faster.  I stopped once to get a good shot of the dome in the early dawn light.

By now, I was approaching 7,000 feet and being to really work for oxygen intake.  I pushed forward as best I could, but there was less and less running.  Finally, I reached “The Stairs”, a series of switchbacks up the north shoulder of the dome.  For all intents and purposes, it was a continuous series of stone stairs dynamited into the mountain (you could still see the drill holes for the blasts in places).   Now I was really sucking air.  I had to stop every 2-3 minutes and let my heart calm down.  It would beat so hard, at times, I felt like a drum was beating in my head.  I got dizzy once, and swayed backwards as I made a turn on a switchback.  I caught my balance and bent over for a minute, cursing myself for being careless.  I knew a fall could mean a broken ankle or leg.  When I stood back up, I look over my shoulder to see how bad the fall would have been.  Which is when I realized I was standing at the top of a 500 foot precipice.

No broken leg here, it would have been Over.  I chuckled at the near miss and headed on up.   Finally I reached the top of the stairs and the base of The Cables.  I was disappointed to find no ranger in waiting.  What did I need a lottery pass for?  I hid my handhelds in a crevice and prepared to make the final climb with just my camelbak.   The 400 foot ascent to the top goes up what varies between a 45 and 60 degree slope.  It is aided by cables which are fixed by bolts in the rock and raised on three foot metal poles placed every dozen feet or so.  There are no safety harnesses, no safety net, in fact, little regard for personal welfare at all.  Amazingly, only 6 people have died falling from the cables in the 93 years since they were installed.   I watched several backpackers descending (who had camped halfway up the mountain the night before, and so by definition, had not beaten me to the top that morning) and marveled that the federal government didn’t worry more about its liability here.    The only thing I could compare it to for risk factor was the Haiku Stairs in Oahu (which should also be on everyone’s bucket list.  The stairs have been closed for years due to safety considerations, and thus illegal to climb.  But the view from the top was well worth the climbing chain link and barb wire fences, hiking thru dense, unmarked bamboo forest, and risking life and limb on metal stairs made slick from moisture by frequent passing clouds.  http://www.haikustairs.com or http://www.friendsofhaikustairs.org )

I tried to use good form going up, always making sure one hand was in contact with a cable at all times.  I don’t know if it was the strength required to pull up the incline, the lack of oxygen, excitement, or fear; but my heart raced around 200 bpm the whole way up.  It was a riveting experience.  When I reached the top, there was just one other person on the far side of the dome, and he descended a few minutes later.  For nearly 20 minutes, I stood on what felt like the roof of Yosemite enjoying the panoramic views in every direction.    I refueled for the first time with a granola bar and walked out onto the ledge of rock called “The Visor”, below which there is a 3,000 foot drop. 

Amazingly, I had cell reception (I never bring a cell phone with me when running, not ever.  Running in the woods is my one respite from the responsibilities of the real world, no one can reach me out there.  But I had brought it this time to show my lottery pass to the ranger who wasn’t there.) , I assume because I had direct line of sight to the lodges nearly one mile below. I couldn’t reach Sandra by phone, but sent her a text that I would be late.  It had taken me 3 ½ hours to ascend, I was taking my time at the top, and I knew I needed at least 2 hours to get down.   I called my daughter Rebecca, and gushed whatever nonsense you tell your child when you’re sitting on top of the world.  Soon I was headed back down The Cables, and then The Stairs, passing the ever growing number of hikers coming the other way.  Once out of the stairs, I was determined to take the downhill as hard as my quads would let me.  I turned a corner, and a ranger stepped out to intercept me to verify my lottery pass (the assumption being if I was above him in the morning, I needed a pass).  When he told me how amazed hikers always were of people running the trail, my pace only picked up from there.  As I descended, I stopped briefly to take pictures of a doe and her fawn who had zero fear of me,

Nevada Falls,

And even caught a rainbow at the bottom of Vernal Falls.

Towards the bottom, my quads were absolutely screaming and my breathing was ragged, but I never stumbled (no horse manure).  I ran all the downhill sections, but promised myself I’d walk every uphill, no matter how brief.  As I came across the bridge below Vernal Falls, I saw a steep uphill which I remembered from the darkness hours earlier.  Here would be my 2-3 minute respite of walking.  Just then, with dozens of onlookers, the leader of some hiking group yelled out from beside the trail, “Great job dude!  Rock-On!”  My peripheral vision told me everyone had turned to watch, and I was left with no choice.   I sprinted the uphill until I turned a corner and was luckily out of sight in time to stop running before I needed to vomit.  I made a wrong turn down in the valley and almost went to Mirror Lake by mistake.  But eventually I found the lodge, and then Sandra.  Almost 21 miles in 6:48 with over 5,000 feet of elevation change and numerous unusual challenges.  I highly (is there a word stronger than highly?) recommend this run to anyone who gets the chance.  This wasn’t just one of my best runs ever, this ranks high on my list of “Life events”. 

Travel Run Update #2: Great Falls, VA 09/01/2012

I first started running ultras in 2007, and in August of that year, my third race was the North Face 50K at Great Falls, VA.  Still new to ultras, my race strategy was terrible, I started way too fast.  When the temperatures hit 98 degrees, I really suffered, limping home in 6:33.   But I still love the course, and run there whenever I can when visiting home.  Saturday, 9/1 I got up in the wee hours and parked alongside Difficult Run about a mile up from where it empties into the Potomac River north of Washington DC.    It is about a mile of scampering and uphill climb to reach the river at the bottom end of the gorge below the falls.

From there, it is several more miles of stiff climbs and descents on the rocks to the fall themselves.

The views are beautiful, and the sound of the falls dominates everything as you wind your way closer.  It was especially rewarding to run this section of the park before it opened to the public (I had come in through a back way on the trails), and pretty much had it to myself before the throngs began to arrive.   Not one mile above the falls, the water is serene, and in the early morning sunlight, no warning of the downstream dangers were apparent.

From there, I continued north, but cut inland where some of the hills includes some wicked climbs and descents, although none very long.  I eventually hit the river again north of Riverview Park and returned south on the riverside trail that was mostly flat almost all the way back to the car.  The temps and humidity were cooler than Florida, but not by much.  I was glad I had taken both my camelback and 2 handhelds for the longish trek as I emptied everything during the run.  19.5 miles in 3:45, and another satisfying run (with no horse manure sightings the entire run).

Travel Run Update #1 - Difficult Run Stream Valley Park 08/30/2012

August 30 started an 18 day, 5 state, 9 flight, 13,000+ mile trip for me, the first 13 days being vacation, followed immediately by a 5 day business trip.  Some of my running friends heard me go on ad nauseum about this trip as I have been giddy about the chance to run in Virginia, California, Texas, and Utah during this stretch.  Wednesday, Sandra and I flew to DC, put the finishing touches on Saturday night’s party to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and had dinner with my parents on their back porchThursday morning I headed over to the trail that passes within a mile of my parents’ house, and followed the Difficult Run Stream Valley.  There are some short crushed gravel sections, but it is mostly single-track, twisty, rooty, and frequently climbing and descending the hills along the valley.  I started at first light, and picked my way carefully through the gloom.  I was rewarded with some early morning sightings of deer, owls and even two red foxes (actually burnt orange with white tufts on their tails).  The entire valley is shrouded in 100+ foot tall oaks and poplar trees, it is an emerald paradise, augmented with audio produced from a thousand songbirds.   My thoughts wandered back over the events of the night before, and I was having a wonderful time until I got careless.  I had just crested a steep hill at a decent clip, and the following downhill led to a sudden acceleration just before my toe clipped a rock and I went down headfirst.  Straight into a giant pile of horse manure.  I was carrying two handheld water bottles which I used to break my fall – right in the pile.  One bottle burst open from the impact, and my water supply was cut in half.  I was covered in horseshit – it was on my hands, arms, handhelds, shorts, legs, and even on my knee where a rock had cut it open in 3 places.  I used my shirt to clean off my hands as best I could, but the rest just stayed.  I am sure I looked quite the mess to the handful of hikers I passed after that.  Every time I brought my remaining water bottle up for a drink, I got a fresh breath of manure.    Fortunately, I sweat most of it off before I got back to the car.  I didn’t cut the run short, and still explored some new side trails, including one that will need further investigation next time I run here.  13+ miles in 2:06 in my new, New Balance minimalist shoes.  That is 8 miles longer than my previous runs in them, time will tell if that was too big of a jump up in mileage.  The spill aside, my first run of vacation was a (smelly) success.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run – May 12-13, 2012

103.7 miles in 32:21:02.   I guess the best place to start this race report is explain why I came back to this rocky hell.  I ran this race in 2011, and completed it in 32:22:02.  If you notice the remarkably similar time, that is only the beginning of the parallels.  I never wrote a race report last year, but I did find this blurb in an email from two days afterwards:

“If you asked me to make a decision today, I would be 50-50 on ever running another 100 miler again.  My guess is the answer will be different in a month when senility allows me to forget some of the stupidity in doing this and all the associated angst and pain.  But it wouldn't kill me to retire now.”;

Somewhere mid-race in 2011, I “bonked”, or so I have at least thought.   I got light-headed and dizzy, and no amount of sugar, salt or fluid would correct it.  The last 30 miles of that race were awful.  I took a 45 minute nap at one aid station while it rained, and tried to quit at the last aid station.  But I finished.  Even though it was my slowest time in a 100 miler by nearly 9 hours, I felt better about finishing it than any other race.  A month later I was running for distance again.  Six months later, I entered the MMT100 lottery again. 

I didn’t make the lottery, but eventually got in from the wait list, and spent the spring training as if I was going.  I ran Rocky Raccoon 100 in February, a pair of 50 mile races in March & April, and a handful of long, difficult runs including back to back 33 milers in hilly conditions three weeks prior to the race.   But I did not get up to the house in North Carolina and run true mountains that would simulate Massanutten.  I was a little worried that would come back to haunt me (and it would).   I came into the race with a modest goal of improving to a 28 hour finish.  24 hours is an elite finish, but unless I lose some more weight, and am able to train regularly in real mountains; that is not going to happen for me on a course like MMT.  I didn’t have to run crazy-good to hit 28 hours, just smart and steady.

Patrick Bene came with me as a pacer, and Joe Dooley who lives in Virginia was there to crew me again.  Friday we visited my parents and brother for lunch, and then more family in the mountains for dinner.  I only got 3.5 hours sleep Friday night, but it never seems to get much better with the nerves before race day.  We were up at 2:00 and off to the 4:00 start at Caroline Lutheran Furnace Camp.  Massanutten Mountain in Virginia is a synclinal ridge that is roughly 50 miles long with a narrow valley between parallel ridges.  The entire ridgeline stays below 3,000 feet, so it is not exceptionally tall.  But the drops are precipitous and the entire mountain is one rocky outcropping after another.    The race includes 11 major climbs of 750-1,500 feet each and numerous smaller ones.   The weather was pretty decent with no rain or mud for the entire event.  Starting time temperature was in the low 40s, I wore a tank top under a long sleeve shirt, gloves and hat. 

The first half of the race was fairly uneventful.  Early on I stayed pretty close to the pace chart I had prepared; and wasn’t having much difficult staying on track.    There were a couple places I felt low and worried that I couldn’t keep up.  But they were quickly followed by the wonderful endorphin highs, especially when careening downhill at breakneck pace making up time.  Joe and Patrick met me at each crewed aid station and kept me supplied with everything I needed.  I was especially careful to take in plenty of sugar and salt, I was NOT going to bonk as I had last year.   The last 4 mile stretch coming into the Habron Gap aid station parallels the Shenandoah River, is very pretty, and I made good time coming through there.  By now, I was a little off pace and knew that 28 hours was going to be a stretch.  My legs just weren’t quite strong enough to push up the steep hills.  I spent a few minutes at that aid station convincing Joe to drop Patrick off at the next aid station where he would begin to pace me and drive into Harrisonburg to watch NHL playoff game 7 of his precious Caps.

I knew from last year coming out of Habron Gap I had a mean 1,500 foot climb to Jack’s Notch.  The temp were now in the high 70s, so I went shirtless and purposely took my time walking up the hill to conserve leg strength as I still had nearly 50 miles to go.  But by halfway up I was really struggling.  I was sweating profusely in the nearly full sun.  My breathing was labored and I stopped several times to put my hang my head with hands on knees to recover.  Soon I was light-headed and a dizzy.   What was happening?  I never feel quite like this when I am running no matter how bad I feel.    Except once before.  Massanutten 2011.  What was it about this race?  Panic swept over me.  I still had well over 40 miles to go.  I couldn’t do this again.  I finished last year’s race feeling like a shell of myself.  It took me weeks to recover, not physically, but mentally and emotionally.  I could NOT do this again.  I pulled into Camp Roosevelt, 63.1 miles and 16+ hours in and in a shambles.

Camp Roosevelt is where Patrick was to begin pacing me, taking me in the last 40.6 miles.  Imagine, taking 4 days off, flying 800 miles away to pace a friend and being told at the start your runner was quitting?  I didn’t.  I pulled in, looked Patrick dead in the eye, told him how I was feeling, and that I was done.  Period.  There was no way I was going told this to myself for 40 more miles.  Fortunately Joe had gone off to see the hockey game and was planning to meet us at the Visitor’s Center aid station 14 miles away several hours from now.  We had nothing to do for hours.  Well, we might as well walk the next two legs and meet him there.  At least I could say I had quit at 77 miles instead of 63.  So off we went. Patrick and I tried to dissect what might have happened.  I’d taken in plenty of salt, sugar and fluid; that was not a problem.  But maybe I needed even more.  So I took more salt pills, starting adding gels to the solid food I was already eating, and drank even more water. 

We arrived at Visitor’s Center with me actually feeling pretty decent.   Joe was there, the Caps had lost 2-1 and were out of the playoffs.  I gave him my condolences and headed for the food.  Patrick had blown out his shoe on a rock; so while he changed footgear, I ate quesadillas, potatoes and jelly beans.   We pulled out quickly with me ready to go to the finish.  Immediately out of that aid station is what is reputed to be the toughest climb on the course, Bird Knob.  In truth, it is shorter than many of the others, but 78 miles in, tired legs suffer even more.  We climbed almost 1,000 feet in just 1.5 miles.  At the Bird Knob aid station, I pointed out the tent where I had slept the year before; but was ready to move on quickly.    We only had 3 legs (out of 16) left on the course and I was ready to finish.  But the next two shorter climbs did me in.  I crashed completely.  I had vertigo and felt totally out of control… of everything.   

I couldn’t take any more rocks.  The rocks are everywhere on this course.  There are places where the trail itself is not self-evident.  You simply look for a painted sign somewhere in the stone and crawl across boulders to get to the next point.  I believe the organizers of the race take great pride in the difficulty of their course, and they should.  It is brutally difficult in most places.  Time after time, you finish a difficult climb looking forward to a fast descent.  Only to find another boulder field with tricky footing falling down before you.  At one point, late in the course, it turns left into a dry creek bed, and you simply traverse the rocks straight uphill for several hundred yards with the ravine rising above you on both sides.  Throughout the course, small stones would skid under your feet, with the occasional sharp one sticking up to bruise your feet when landed improperly.  Medium-sized stones require a little extra lift in your legs to clear lest you be tripped.  And then there were the big boulders for which I came to regret man becoming bipedal.  During the day, I was constantly using nearby trees or other rocks to brace myself with my hands before I stepped up or down a bigger drop-off.  But at night, the millipedes come out by the thousands, so I could no longer use my hands.  I know there are many courses with much more altitude to deal with, and courses with more elevation change.  But I doubt any are so quite so singularly cruel when combined with the terrain itself. 

We stumbled into the Picnic Area aid station at mile 86.9 and I was done.  Or at least, I thought so.   But Patrick didn’t.  Joe gave me a look, knowing he had seen this before.  But I would show them.  I sat in a chair next to the fire and ate a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon.  Then I ate a little more bacon. This was my post race meal.   Just for good measure, I ate a third serving of bacon.  I felt cozy sitting by the fire, I could feel sleep not too far away.  But Patrick & Joe continued to talk to me as if I was headed back out.  Another FUR, Traci Phillips, there to pace Michelle Matys was also at the aid station and took up the cause and began to berate the idea of dropping.  How dare I?  A volunteer pointedly told me no one else had dropped at this aid station, I would be the first.  And he would have none of that at his aid station.   I stubbornly replied to all of them that I was done, nothing they could say would get me out of that chair.  Then, after 40 minutes in the chair,  I looked at Joe and asked him to refill my water bottles.  I told Patrick to get ready to go, jumped out of the chair, and started down the trail.  Within 100 yards I went from a walk to a shuffle, a 100 yard later a slow trot, and soon I was running again.  I can’t say now what changed my mind, but I was going to finish dammit.

The next 3 hours will stay in my head for a long time.  Not long out of Picnic Area, the 10th of 11 climbs begins, and I soon regretted my decision.  I told Patrick I had made a big mistake.  This had been stupid.  I was dizzy again, and my head was swimming.   I wouldn’t be the same after this race for weeks.  Running and finishing this race is no so important as to overshadow my bigger priorities of wife, kids and work.   Finishing this race would be a selfish act on my part.  I had every reason in the book to argue for stopping.  And for every argument I threw out there, Patrick countered with two.  We had a running (sic) three hour philosophical conversation back and forth that at times became surly (on my part at least).  Without actually beginning to f-bomb him, I made sure Patrick knew how angry I was.  None of that worked.  He tried to shame me, asking me how I would explain to my kids that I had quit.  Barrett’s never quit.  But in my swirling head, I came up with explanations on how to deal with that.  Then Patrick dropped his biggest bomb, “How will you explain this to your Dad?”  That one hit closest to home.  But I was done, or so I thought.

We came out of the woods, turned on to the last two mile downhill stretch on a gravel road to the Gap Creek aid station.  I could walk this last stretch and be done.  Another runner and his pacer passed us.  I asked them to look for the big guy in a Caps jersey and ask him to drive up the hill and get us.  Now, I wouldn’t even have to do the whole two miles.  But we kept walking in case they didn’t see him.  After a while Joe still hadn’t shown and we were still walking.  Did he decide not to come get us and make me keep going?  Jerk.  I started trotting.  Then Joe pulled up in the car asking which of us was injured.  I snarled at him, “No one” and told him to just meet us at the damn aid station.   I looked back and saw Patrick talking to Joe next to the car.  I yelled back at them that I had been rooting against the Caps all along and beauty school owners (of which Patrick is one) were losers, and ran ahead to the last aid station.  I quickly refueled, ate a breakfast burrito, asked the aid station volunteers to keep that jerk (Patrick) away from me, and took off.

Patrick caught me early in the uphill scramble on that last big climb and we forged upwards.  It was difficult going, but my header felt better than it had in 15+ hours.  The first mile coming back downhill is treacherous on wobbly legs, but as soon as the footing became less rocky, we started to run.  We turned on to the final stretch of gravel road and I ran most of the last several miles.  Patrick gloated that he had Jedi-mind f****ed me.  And he was right.  Clearly, I could finish, I was running solidly.  In fact, I realized late, I might be able to beat last year’s time.  We went as hard as I could the last half mile came out of the woods into the field at the finish, and broke into a flat out sprint to finish exactly 60 seconds better than 2011.  Just over 0.5 seconds faster per mile.   I complimented the race director on the aid stations and the volunteers who were fantastic.  Patrick heard there were 150 volunteers for a race with just 205 entrants, that is impressive.   Volunteers at all ultrarunning races seem to be very good people, and amazingly supportive.  But what we experienced at MMT is a cut above.  We chatted with Michelle Matys who finished just 12 minutes behind me and Traci, had a post race beer, and took off for Mother’s Day dinner with my family.

Two years in a row with very similar results.  103.7 miles (because 100 miles of rocks is not enough) in 32:21:02 for an 18:43 pace.  I was 68th out of 125 finishers.  A little over 24 hours later and I feel remarkably decent.  No blisters, no injuries.  My legs are massively sore, and I won’t run for a week at least.  But I will be back at it soon, the Black Hills 100 in South Dakota is just 6 weeks away.   I found out once again, just how good my friends are.  Patrick proved definitively, once again,  he is an amazing pacer.   I come out of this race with plenty of material for self reflection as I consider what I have become (seven 100 mile races completed, including two at MMT), and what I have note (see the numerous attempts to quit and dependence on outside support to keep going cited above).   I will go see my doctor or a sport nutritionist to try and get to the root cause of my vertigo issues.  And I probably need to do that fairly quickly.  Because within six months the selective amnesia all ultrarunners are prone to will have settled in, and I will be submitting my entry for the lottery to enter the 2013 MMT 100.  27 hours is absolutely doable on that course with the right training.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Red Rocks Canyon Run - 03/12/2012

Sandra and I went to Las Vegas for Xerox's President's Club for a week.  After 5 days of too much fun, food and drinking, I got up early Monday to go out to Red Rocks Canyon for a long run.  Red Rocks is 25 minutes from the Strip, and I was able to get to my first parking spot 45 minutes before dawn, and be running at first light.  On the ride out, I listened to the news highlights on the radio, which included a note that there had been a hiker missing in Red Rocks Canyon since January, and his body was just found the day before.  I didn't think too much of it, but did remind myself to stay on the trails and not get lost.

My first spot was the Blue Diamond Hills where a series of mountain bike trails crisscrossed the hills.  From the parking lot, there were several trails leading out.  In retrospect, if I had gone left or right, the trails would have curved out and around to climb gently to the top.  But I chose the one in the middle which led me straight into an arroyo.  After just 5 minutes, it had already become steep and rocky enough, that I had to walk much of it.  Shortly after that, I reached a dead end.  I had a choice of climbing 30 feet straight up or backtracking.  I really wanted to run, so turned and looked for greener pastures.  Soon I passed an opening into another arroyo and took a chance, heading up the creek bed.  It was a bit eerie running along at first light; the canyon was dark, and I had visions of mountain lions just above me, waiting to pounce.

I am not sure when, but somewhere in the dimly lit canyon, I lost the trail.  I stubbornly continued up the creek bed, huffing and puffing, convinced it would lead out to the top.  Once again, I hit a dead end, but this time decided to climb.  None of the rises were more than 10 feet, so I was never in danger of serious injury if I fell.  But it was rough, slow going.  Finally after a nearly an hour, I came out on top of the escarpment.  Once there, I quickly picked up one of the trails, and began to really enjoy pounding up and down the twisting trails.  The grade was rarely steep, but never level either.  The trail was very rocky, so I had to spend a fair amount of time watching my feet so as not to fall.  There were numerous yuccas, cactus, and other low-lying desert bushes that I spent some effort avoided getting speared by.  I saw little wildlife, but did get spooked by a rabbit the size of a small lab.  Later, there were beautiful quail, nearly 16 inches tall, that let me approach quite closely before scurrying off.

At some point I must have made another wrong turn because I came out onto a dirt road.  I was a little concerned that I wandered off trail twice in less than 90 minutes.  But looking west, I could always see the La Madre mountains rising above the canyon.  Knowing I had a good reference point, I figured I could orienteer my way back if needed.  Looking at the map later, I realized I had run out of the park and onto some other land.  The road led upslope, and appeared to go all the way to the peak of the Blue Diamond Hills.  So up I went.  The slope varied between 5-15 degrees; and I was pretty pleased I was able to run almost all of it.  The car, back at the base had said the temperature was 56 degrees, but as I climbed, I could feel it dropping quickly and the wind picked up.  I soon added the long sleeve shirt I had carried even as I sweated profusely working uphill. 

The peak was beautiful.   To the east, I was looking back down into the valley and the urban sprawl of Las Vegas.  Beyond it, I could see Lake Mead shimmering in the low sun.  To the north, I saw the Sheep Range mountains in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge where I had run last year.  And back to the west, I had a panoramic view of Red Rocks Canyon, with the mountains of dizzying hues spread around it.  Much as I wished to enjoy the view, I did not tarry.  The wind was howling through about 50 mph, and the temperature had to have dropped below 32 because I could feel the snot on my face, freezing into ice. Shivering, I turned back down the road and ran hard trying to warm back up.  I retraced my steps until I found a trail again and just kept working my way west back towards the car.

The trip coming back down was very different, as I could pick out the trails on the slopes below me and keep my bearings at all times.  After a bit, I saw the canyon I had earlier climbed off to my left, and a similar one to the right.  The slope became very steep in places, and the switchbacks frequent.  I marveled at the people who decided this was a good place to bike and classified them all as insane.  The steeper the trail got, the slower I became, at times having to skip sideways to gain purchase on the crushed rock under foot.  I had no interest in tumbling off the edge and making tomorrow's news reel.  Finally, after just over 2 1/2 hours and almost 11 miles of good hill training, without seeing a single other human being, I was back to the car.

I snapped a few pictures, jumped in the car, and raced a mile down the road to the Red Rocks Canyon visitor center.  I quickly sucked down a coconut water, refilled my camelback, and was on my way.  The canyon has an 11.6 mile loop called The Grand Circle that goes around the perimeter and hits most of the highlights of the park.  Within a mile, the trail approaches Calico Hills and also the site of the demise of the aforementioned hiker.  The hills are cross bedded sandstone of different colors, created by deposits left over from an ancient sea.  The first section is a bright pink that does not look possible to be natural.  That soon gave way to the longer orange section.  Here the trail connected to numerous other trails leading down from the scenic overlook above me, and the path wound up and down the slope driving my heart rate ever upwards.  In the midst of this, I took my third, but final wrong turn of the day. 
At a fork I had turned right to follow what I thought we be a lower trail, down closer to the sandstone itself.  Before I realized it, I had gone right out onto the rocks themselves.  I climbed to the top until reaching a dead-end with 60-100 foot drop offs in 3 directions.  I needed rappelling equipment, or to turn around.  Before I turned back, I glanced up a the cliffs and was stunned.  Too often, when running, I am in such a hurry to "make my time" or "keep my pace", that I don't slow down enough to enjoy the sights that were a major attraction for turning to trail running a few years ago.

Calico Hills from up close (and at this point, within) are jaw-droppingly beautiful.  They rise for almost a thousand feet straight up from where I was.  This area was once a desert with huge sand dunes, much like the Sahara now.  The dunes would get blown back and forth into waving and curving patterns, into which they later solidified into Aztec sandstone.  An artist could not have painted them any better as they weaved in and out and around each other.  Small bushes and trees popped out of the cliffs in places with dark splashes of green against the bright orange, and now sunlit rocks.  Here and there, splashes of yellow lichens grew just out of reach of the strongest light.  I saw more patches of blue and red; and then realized they were people working their way to a good climbing spot.  I must have stood in place for several minutes just staring.  It was a good reminder of just how blessed I am to have taken up this sport and having the opportunities to see these things.

I backtracked down the rocks, found the correct trail and continued west towards Sandstone Quarry where the orange rocks turned suddenly to yellow.  The suddenness with which the rocks changed color but not composition or structure was stunning.  It looked like someone had taken two colors of play dough and mixed them together.  The trail had gotten no easier and my legs were starting to feel the toll of the days efforts.  I glanced down at my hand held map a few times wondering if I should turn back, or head back on the paved road next time the trail crossed it.  But I pressed forward hoping to get closer to the west wall of the canyon.  I knew that would be the highest point of the run; with easier, downhill running on the return.  I stared up at Turtleback and La Madre mountains taking in as much as I could without taking a nasty spill.

When I reached the turn for White Rock Canyon, I decided to cut that section out.  I had lost 20+ minutes on my fortuitous Calico Hills detour, and was now short on time to get back to Vegas. I ran the paved Scenic Loop for just over a mile before intersecting the trail again as it came down out of Willow Spring.  From there, the trail follows a low ridgeline 3.7 miles back to the visitor's center.  It was not quite straight, but mostly downhill and I was able to run the entire distance at a nice pace.  The entire stretch, I had the Calico Hills off in the distance to my left, Blue Diamond Hills straight ahead and the 3,000 foot cliffs of the Red Rocks Wash to my right; there was no shortage on views.   In the end, the two combined runs of the morning were 22.2 miles in 5 hours flat with 3,058 feet of elevation change.  Best of all, I was on my way back to the Bellagio for a massage, some wine, and immediate rest.  Another great run in the books.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Rocky Raccoon 100 Race Report

22:19 In The Mud With Superman And The Slug

The lead up to Rocky Raccoon was a Tale of Two Training Regimens.  November and December were the best 2 months of running I've ever had.  I had multiple runs in the 40-65 mile range, did my best tempo and interval work in years, and blew away my best mileage month in December (323).  Run after run, I felt stronger and came into the Croom Zoom 100K looking to break 10 hours.  But I fared poorly that day, faltering to an 11:08, sore legs, bruised feet, and damaged confidence.  A week later I ran an 8 mile leg at the Long Haul 100 relay and immediately afterwards felt as if I had broken my foot. After doing some research, I was convinced I had the beginnings of a stress fracture and confined myself to the stationary bike and elliptical 2 weeks leading up to RR.  To make things worse, I traveled for work, ate and drank too much, gained 5 lbs, and caught a nasty cold.  I toed the line in Huntsville feeling poorly and not even sure my foot would hold up for a mile.

Race morning, I opened the door to the hotel room to put my bag in the car and rain was falling.  In the 10 feet from door to car, I was wet.  Just after I parked my car at Huntsville State Park, it began to really downpour.  Summertime Florida thunderstorm downpour where you have trouble seeing the house across the street.  The nightmare of the Guts Reactor Run a year ago all came flooding (literally) back to me.  It rained the first 22 hours straight of that race, and it was 100 miles of mud.  Recently relocated FUR, Andrea Risi was the only female finisher.  We ran together, but I dropped after 60 miles (getting credit for a 50 mile finish); and I have not stopped hearing about it from her since.  That was my 2nd straight 100M DNF, and I had to start considering whether I was cut out to go 100 miles consistently.  I got some redemption a few months later finishing Massanutten in just over 32 hours of rocky hell.  But now I was faced with GRR conditions all over again.

Mike Patterson running his first 100, Bill Zulas wisely in the 50, and I huddled under the start/finish tent out of the rain with several hundred other nervous runners. Hal Koerner who later won the race, Karl Metzler and other elites were somewhere up front.  But I didn't care.  It was raining.  There would be mud.  Can I do this?  I had entered RR on the hopes of breaking 20 hours on a reputedly fast course.  Now I wasn't even sure I wanted to start.

Rocky Raccoon is a 20 mile loop with two multiple mile sections where runners pass going both directions.  The first 3.1 miles to the Nature Center are the easiest section of the course, and I consistently made better times through here.  I felt great,and my foot didn't hurt in the least.  But now the thunder and lightning started, and water started to collect on the course.  Even with a slow start fighting the crowd at the beginning, I made the second aid station, Dam Nation (6.2 miles) in 69 minutes, almost dead on my goal pace.  From there, it is a 6 mile mini-loop returning back to Dam Nation 12.2 miles in and I continued to run strong despite the rain.

It was 3.4 miles to the last aid station, Park Road, and the first 1.5 miles of that was one of the sections where runners pass both directions.  We started seeing the 50 milers who started one hour later coming the other way.  As we passed through one particularly muddy section, I heard another runner comment, I wonder what this will look like after everyone comes through here a couple times.  I quickly did the math in my head.  300 hundred milers would come through 10 times each.  450 fifty milers would come through 6 times each.  Even with DNFs, there would be close to 5,000 passes through this section.  Uh-Oh.

I made it to Park Road a couple minutes ahead of pace and told myself to back down.  I needed to average 4 hour loops for a 20 hour finish.  The plan was to bank a few minutes by running the first 3 loops in 3:45ish time, and absolutely nothing faster than 3:40.  But by this time, I was being passed by 50 milers only slightly faster than me, and I let myself get pulled along too fast.  I finished loop 1 in 3:35, irritated at the lack of self discipline.  I took a much needed bath room break and headed back out.

The rain had stopped about 3 1/2 hours into the race, and I started loop 2 with high hopes.  The muddiest sections had not gotten much worse with the first rounds of traffic, and much of the course was slick but not squishy.  The course was every bit as rooty as I had been warned, but I was navigating that just fine.  No sooner did I commend myself for that, I toe-hooked, face planted and banged up my knee.  Two runners behind me stopped to help, but I jumped up, pissed, and sprinted away.

Then the real fun started.  The forecast had been for showers in the morning, clearing away by midday.  When the rain had stopped at 9:30, I was sure that was it, and the course would hold up.  But around noon it rained again, steady, for maybe 2 hours.  That was it, Huntsville State Park was saturated.  This round of rain stayed where it fell: on the trail.  The muddy sections started to look like cow pens with ankle-deep, shoe-sucking mud.  New trails started to get carved out in the brush by runners trying to circumvent the worst of it.  Later in the race, those were foot-deep chasms of hell and you were better off plowing straight down the middle of the mess.  Uphills became treacherous, with every footfall followed by a small backwards slide.  More on the downhills later.

While I have always preferred point to point runs, I having a growing affinity for loop runs like Ancient Oaks or Croom Zoom.  There is something to be said for repeating a track, getting comfortable with it, and being able to plan when to push, and when to conserve.  I learned as the race went along to make time in the first 6.2 miles, try not to struggle killing myself pushing through the 6 mile Dam Nation loop, and then hold easy down the home stretch.  I finished loop 2 in 3:44 and comfortably on track.  But my quads felts like I had 80 miles in them, not 40. I assumed it was lack of running the past several weeks and I could push through it as the race went along.

Lap 3 got no better though.  The rain had stopped, but the course was soaked.  There were no dry patches left.  Most of the course was still runnable, but the going was more tricky, and the bad patches were a real kick in the teeth each time you passed through.  I took another ugly fall but escaped any real damage.  My supposed foot injury had never resurfaced, but the balls of both feet were beginning to hurt.  I finished the third lap in 3:59 and opted for a sock and shoe change.  The shoes I was wearing were caked in mud and probably weighed triple their norm.  With the pain in my feet, I was worried I would find blisters, after 11 hours of wet running.  But to my delight, they were unmarred.  I had experimented at GRR with rubbing vaseline all over my feet before that wet run, and it worked. Something about the lubrication, or the water sealant seems to prevent blisters, it has worked to perfection each time.

I also changed my shirt, grabbed my lights as darkness was not far away, and set out on lap 4 recalibrating my goals.  After giving back almost 15 minutes with the wardrobe change, I had finished 60 miles with 20 minutes in the bank against a 20 hour finish.  But my legs were far more tired than they should be, and I knew it was a stretch. I decided to ease back and just take what the course would give me.  You can't control race conditions, and if 20 hours was not in the cards, then so be it.  I had my headphones on, and just relaxed with my playlists.  (Side note: Every race seems to be different in terms of socialization.  Some races, I seem to run chatting away in small groups for miles at a time.  Other races, by chance, you team up with a runner of similar pace and run dozens of miles sharing running tips and life histories.  Maybe it was the rain, but this was a race where I did very little talking.  I think the longest stretch I ran with another runner talking was 100 feet.)

I am still amazed at the highs and lows that occur in ultras.  One minute, you are running along, feeling great, thinking forward about how after this performance, you a going to step up your training and figure out how to beat Anton Krupicka.  Not longer after, it is tears and shame.  Why do I hurt so much?  Why am I out here in the middle of the damn night?  Why do I even run?  This sucks.  I am not very good at this.  That is it, next aid station, I am turning in my timing chip.  Not long after, the pain has subsided, the stride has returned, the pace is good, and I am pretty sure that guy just ahead that I am reeling in is Anton.  Superman to Slug and back again in minutes, repeatedly through the race.  I can bank on it every time.  Every time it happens, I look down at my left wrist and my Allie Matthews crafted "Don't Quit Andy2" bracelet and keep going. Even if it means walking for 30 seconds, 5 minutes, or an hour, that phone booth containing an outfit with a red cape and the big "S" on the chest is waiting just around the next corner of the trail.  Outside of the pure joy of the running itself, I think it is repeating that thought pattern and being able to carry over the same thinking in my real world life, be it work or family issues, that keeps me coming back to these races.The perseverance (my father's favorite word) it has taught me has made me a stronger person (although some close friends might call that a relative statement) and better at many other things.  If I was reading a resume and saw "ultrarunnr" or "endurance athlete", I would consider skipping the interview and jumping to "You're hired."

With my adjusted goals, and a "low 20-something" finish, I figured I needed to be at Dam Nation in about 85 minutes.  So of course I got there in something like 75.  What?  Maybe the shoe change was all I had needed.  My feet were muddy again, but felt better.  Clark Kent grabbed his calculator and started doing the math on salvaging a 19:59 finish.  I HAD this.  The first half of the  Dam Nation loop is a long straightaway of longish uphills and downhills with little flat running.  The first half is more climbing and I powered up the inclines on rejuvenated legs.  The second half is more downhills, and I took every risk I could on the slick trail, pounding down the slope.  By the time I made the turn, my quads were screaming. I looked at my watch, and I had lost several minutes. How could I work so hard and lose time again?  Dejected, I reeled back in again, plodding back the other way, leaving a slime trail behind.

By now, my feet hurt as bad as my quads, and couldn't understand why.   After the race, Mike told me he dropped at 80 miles because his feet hurt too badly.  He looked great each time I saw him, and still had a legitimate shot at breaking 30 hours when he dropped.  But knowing how my feet felt, I understand why he did.  Looking back, I think I figured it out.  Normally,  if given the option, I avoid stepping on roots in favor of the softer surface of dirt or sand.  But with all the rain, the downhills we treacherous if you stepped too heavily and the ground gave way (which it did each time).  I think I subconsciously began striking with the ball of my foot on roots to get surer footing.  Taking your full body weight coming downhill, landing on a hard (and not flat or broad like a rock) surface took its toll.

I trudged in lap 4 in 4:59.  20 hours was out of reach, 21 hours was a long shot.  I would need a miraculous recovery just to get 22.  But I rushed through the turn, grabbing some warmer clothes and headed out.  I did NOT want to drop at 80 miles.  I could remember every instance of the last year of A3 telling me she was a 'tough mudder', and I was not (and there were many).  I could hear A1 comparing his hundred mile finishing rate to mine, in a not so gracious fashion.  I could hear Patrick chirping at my shortcomings, just for the fun of it.  And I could hear Sandra (my wife) asking, "Why the hell do you even do this to yourself?"  No, back on the course I went.

16:40 in, 20 miles to go.  I walked for a bit to decide my goals.  I figured I could walk the entire loop and still get a 24 hour buckle.  I could blister it in and try to break 22.  I compromised, and decided to run-walk it in for something in the low 22s.  I wanted to finish in time to get enough sleep before Super Bowl Sunday.  Not too much later, I arrived at Dam Nation way ahead of pace.  I had passed numerous people walking who complimented me for finishing strong.  With that encouragement I ran faster, but I could feel that damn cape tugging behind me.  OK, seems like I've recovered and can hear the finish calling.  Let's push this along, and break 21.  And for the 4th consecutive loop, that back section did me in.

My feet were killing me now.  With 8 miles to go, I started the dreaded death march.  I ran a couple times for 50 or 100 feet, but the feet and the quads resisted.  It hadn't rained in almost 12 hours, but the muddy patches had become horrific.  Now the math in my head became self torture.  With the wet conditions, my strides were shorter, I was probably taking 2,000 steps per mile.  With 6 miles to go, I wondered if I could take 12,000 more impacts like that.  With 5 miles to go I was getting cold.  The temperature had dropped to around 40, it was humid, and the wind had begun to blow.  With all the walking, I had long stopped sweating my body temperature was falling, and I was shivering.  I briefly flirted with dropping at the last aid station, but realized the walk to the finish and my car was not much longer on the trail.  The slug lounged in the relative warmth of the Park Road aid station for several minutes eating blueberries and wallowing in its mucus trail.  But I looked at the food table, saw a salt shaker next to the potatoes, caught a fright (my apologies to all those who don't understand that reference and never experienced the stupid and childish redneck joy of slugs and salt) and headed out for the final stretch.

With 2 miles to go, I came to the flat easy section along the lake determined to trot this one section.  And I walked.  I climbed the last hill knowing I could still trot the last 1/2 mile in.  And I walked.  I turned the last corner determined to trot those last hundred yards looking good at the finish.  And I walked.  Straight through the finish line, under the tent, and down into a chair next to the heater.  I was shivering pretty good and it took a while before I could stop.  Fortunately, Mike, his sister, and Bill were all there waiting and supportive.  I soon had blankets, soup, my drop bag, and most importantly, the buckle.  They went and got my rental car for far away in the parking lot, pulled it up close, and 2 people walked me to it.

I went to Huntsville to break 20 hours and missed by 2:19.  Writing this now, 36 hours removed from the race, I won't complain.  Despite missing one immediate goal, I have several positive takeaways. 376 runners started the 100, 219 finished, and I was 48th.  I am now 6 for 8 in hundred mile finishes.  Along with last year's Massanutten, I am qualified to enter the Mont Blanc lottery for 2013.  No one can control or predict race day conditions (although I am actively searching the Saharan race calendar now), and I had about as good a performance as I could have expected all things considered.   RR is an outstanding race. Joe Prusiatis is an excellent RD, the volunteers were wonderful, and it was exceptionally well organized, especially considering they had 750 runners out there.  I will likely go back at some point to take another shot at 19:xx.  Most importantly, whatever was wrong with my foot leading up to the race seems to be completely gone.  I come away with no injuries, no blisters, and renewed confidence.  Maybe not in my ability to run fast, but at least in my ability to persevere.  Next up, a couple easy weeks of recovery on the bike and in the pool, and the gearing up for Dances With Dirt followed by the Fool's Run.