Zen and the Art of Mountain Running- Nirvana Big Bear 50k Race Report

IMG_3012The howling of the wolves was our starting gun, the rattle of the diamondbacks our cowbells. Nineteen intrepid souls began their looping journey in the semi-dark shadow of Crafts Peak near Big Bear, California. Some had ambitions of completing a 100 mile expedition, my goals were more modest- complete 31 and still have enough strength in my legs to work the gas pedal that would propel my car back to Las Vegas.

It was 37 degrees at the start, but warmed quickly, and soon I was down to shorts and a t-shirt. Early on, my toes were a bit numb in my sandals and I had another pair of shoes stashed at the start just in case the course was more technical than I could handle in my flip-flops. Turned out, that wasn’t going to be an issue.

IMG_3024Starting at about 6,500 ft was a new experience for me, and the first hill reminded me of the difficulties of running at altitude (well, at least more altitude than I was used to). The first two miles took nearly 30 minutes as I adjusted, and the pack drifted away from me.  As this was the Nirvana Big Bear race, I tried to place my mind in a present state and breathe.  After the second or third hill, I tried to focus on getting my heart rate under 200 and making it to the end.

IMG_3058The course itself was a series of three loops, the first two (of 1.5 and .5 a mile respectively) brought us up to just under 7,000 ft twice and then the 8 mile loop pushed us to the top at around 7,300 ft, then threw us into a series of hills before chasing us down the mountain and back to the finish.  Total elevation gain was about 4,800 ft per Garmin. Two well stocked and excellently volunteered aid stations were set up so that you actually hit them three times (miles 5, 8, and the start/finish).  This was the initial running of the NBB, and RD John Wog put on a fantastic race!

IMG_3091Because of the short loops at the start, I had the chance to glimpse a few other runners, but with only 19 on a 10 mile stretch, I didn’t expect to have much sense of where everyone was.  I am competitive, but generally not a competitor in these races, but I do occasionally gain purpose from knowing someone is just in front or just behind me. My first indicator that something different was happening at this race came as I rolled into the first aid station.  I had caught up to and was running with one of the 50 milers, and as we came to the table, the volunteer checking us off said to me: “You’re in third place!”  Awesome! I love being in front only 5 miles into a race! (he typed sarcastically) Something must be wrong. I don’t think I’m going too fast.  Maybe the wolves are actually out on the course (which, by the way, it turns out that there are wolves in Big Bear, but they’re at a sanctuary 20 miles away, maybe I heard coyotes…) We loped out of the aid station to complete a 3+ mile loop, and didn’t pass anyone. As we sauntered back through the checkpoint, I confirmed that I was actually in 3rd, and began the descent to the start.  I forgot to mention that I was holding my iPhone on a stick, trying to get a time-lapse of the first loop of the course.  That didn’t really work, but it did allow me to get a few good shots without really stopping.

As I made the transition, I passed a guy who looked like he was running the 50k, but I wasn’t sure.  “How can you look at someone and tell what they’re running?”, I hear you ask.  Let’s just say I was one with the mountain at this point, and because when I asked him what distance he was running, he said “50k”. Hypothesis confirmed.

Ok, now I’m technically in second place and we still have 20 miles to go.  Based on my past race experience, that’s not going to hold unless I do something different.  Time to channel my inner coyote and run like the wind on a becalmed sea.  I actually did the second loop in almost exactly the same time as the first loop (around 2:05) but because there were very few times you had long straightaways, I had no idea how much distance I had put on #2 or how far in front the leader was.  It was getting warmer and my heightened senses told me the leader was close…and that I would need a shower.

IMG_3133I bombed the downhill at a 12 minute pace J and came roaring into the start/finish to begin my final loop.  Another runner was there and as we left together we started chatting. He was running sleep-deprived from a 5 day old newborn and wasn’t sure what distance he had signed up for.  In addition he had kicked a boulder, so was struggling a bit on the downhills.  I had to stop to adjust my straps as my homemade lacing system was starting to rub, and by the time I was done he was way up ahead of me. It took me a while to catch up to him and we stayed close for a while before his injury started to slow him down even more.  I moved forward with the odd sense that something had just happened.

Leading a race is never something I had done and it was a bit terrifying.  Confirmation that I was now in the lead came at the midway aid station, so with 5 miles to go, I needed to step it up.  Rooting around in my head, I found the coyote again and woke him up, thundering out of the aid station and stupidly running a 10 minute mile that left my quads shaking.  I caught Ed the Jester (he was only 3 loops into his eventual 100 mile odyssey), talked to him for a bit and learned we both knew some of the same people, then power hiked the last hill into the final checkpoint, leaving only a little over a mile left to the finish.  I saw Doug (the eventual 3rd place finisher) hitting the aid station as I was going by the other way, so I knew I had a little over 3 miles on him, but didn’t know where Dustin, the sleep deprived, injured new father was.  The coyote was licking his paws, so I hobbled my best into the finish area, only to be reminded that I had completed 30 miles, not 31, so I needed to do two ½ mile loops to complete the distance.  A guide was provided and he assured me that we had no more hills to climb, so we set off at a respectable pace and finished in 6:38.  As it was, Dustin was about 30 minutes behind me and Doug was 11 minutes behind him. First place felt good! Maybe I should start looking for sponsors?IMG_3187

According to Wikipedia, Nirvana literally means “blown out”, and in the Buddhist context nirvana refers to the imperturbable stillness of mind after the fires of desire, aversion, and delusion have been finally extinguished. I’m embarrassed to report that I didn’t achieve Nirvana.  My mind is still all over the place, this race did not extinguish my desire to run, I do have an aversion to pain, and am still deluded.  I did almost blow out a quad, though, so maybe I’m close… :)IMG_3195

Note: Still Working on my American Odyssey Relay race report from the week before.  Trying to get other’s perspective, otherwise you’ll only hear about 1/12 of the race!

Moved by the Spirit- Spirit of the Osage 50k report

(Note: this race was held on 10/20.  Apologies for the late report)

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Not the farm, but an interesting country church

In the beautiful hills of Missouri, about halfway between St Louis and Kansas City, lies Osage County.  There are no stoplights in the entire county, and the land is dotted with farms.  Just off Highway HH, the hills rise to a peak at the home of race directors David and Victoria White.
This is where we started and ended our jaunt- three loops (and a short out and back) on a combination of paved and gravel roads.  As they lived at the highest point, each loop was capped by a mile long climb that brought you into the waiting arms of the aid station.  The temptation was to linger, but with the countryside beckoning, and knowing that a return trip would only take a few more hours, you left with that great feeling of one more lap in the books.

My strategy from the start was to stay at the back and stay disciplined.  The only elevation profile I could find said that there was about 1200 feet of gain for the entire distance.  That turned out to be per loop (note: always pay attention), so 3600 for the entire 31 mile distance!

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Not game ending, but not exactly what I was prepared for. I took the camera out on the first loop to get some shots, knowing I could drop it for the next two (and knowing that my desire to take pictures is inversely related to the distance I’d already covered).  I also was experimenting running in Luna (NFI) sandals and had “real shoes” ready at the end of loop aid station just in case. Loop 1 started well and I was able to chat with a few people and finally caught up with Chris Tallman about halfway through the loop. He had stopped to take a picture of a fairly uninterested bull and we decided to run the rest of the race together, swapping stories and enjoying the run. IMG_2326 Loop 1, about 11 miles, we finished in just over 2 hours and with the next two loops being shorter, we thought around a 6 hour finish was doable.  The Lunas were holding up well, so I dropped the camera and we started loop 2.

On loop 2 we started to catch and pass a few people.  In a 3 loop race, in my opinion, the second loop is the hardest mentally.  The early race euphoria has worn off, you’re seeing the same scenery for the second time (no matter how beautiful) and you know you are going to have to do it again when you’re done.  Having someone to run with helps as the conversation usually makes the miles go by largely unnoticed. That was loop two and as we hit the bottom of the last hill, I had an unexpected visit from John Cash (working aid stations after completing the 20k) saying I had an urgent phone call.  OK, so into his truck and back to the start line, I was on the phone for a good 40 minutes, but thankful that everything was resolved and was able to get back to the run.  I caught a ride back to the bottom of the hill and started again.  One note, I did wimp out and change into shoes while on the phone, so now I was ready to do the last lap plus a mile.

On my way up the hill, I ran into Justin Handy, a good friend and fellow SLUG.  I had spoken to a few people during the race that had told me this was their first ultra and I told Justin how unusual I thought that was.  He surprised me by telling me that this was his first as well (we had run a number of long training runs together, so I assumed he was a veteran)!  Ok, that 40 minute call served two purposes and one was to put me right where I was so I could run with Justin.  On the last loop we took turns motivating each other to run, run faster or walk faster.  Made it up the last hill and into the finish!  I was really glad I could be there for his first ultra and we devoured a few brats, some chili and a few beverages and enjoyed the great spread put on by Dave and Victoria.  All in all, a great day, a big change from my race two weeks earlier, but once again, a chance to run and talk with some great people.  The camaraderie is the biggest difference between these runs and the 10,000+ marathons, in my opinion, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  On to Nashville two weeks later for (what I assume) is going to be the flattest ultra I’ve ever run!

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Ain’t no Fuego like a Texas Fuego!

IMG_2305_edited-1Legends tell of a place deep in the heart of Texas where fire and water join the hills to try to destroy all who enter.  The sun burns, the water is undrinkable and the buzzards circle.  We entered this place willingly, and (thankfully) it spit us out whole…

The first annual Fuego y Agua (US) was held at Camp Eagle near Rocksprings Texas. The race offered four levels of challenge (50 and 100k “run only” and 50 and 100k survival runs <details here>).  I chose the easiest, and it still was one of the longest 50k’s I’ve ever “run”.  I finished in 9:51, which was good enough for 6th overall in the 50k run (out of 13 runners, one of whom dropped out (DNF)).  In the 50k survival category, 10 of the 23 DNF’d and only 1 person did all the challenges and finished the 50k (in 16 hrs, 22 min).  No one finished the 100k in either event.  To say race director Josue Stephens had created a challenge is an understatement.

The survivalists started at 4:30 AM and the runners at 5:30. The reason they started early was they had to make the running sandals they were going to run in.  IMG_2210Materials were provided by Luna (NFI) and armed with a knife, a sheet of rubber and some strapping, they went to work.  The day before they had to carry a log (weight commensurate with their own weight) up a hill to get their race bib.  Crazy.

By the time we woke up and meandered down there, they were putting together their sandals and their “packs” (they had to make a pack out of a shirt or bandana, no hydration packs here).  All had finished and set off before we got the go signal, and at 5:30 we ran off into the dark of Camp Eagle to begin our odyssey.

We quickly caught the survival runners (they had that same log on their backs as they ascended and then descended a pretty steep hill (100ft straight up, then 159 down to the riverbed)). We cheered them on as they took their logs into the river for a swim while we ran along the bank and back up into the hills.  We didn’t see any of them again, and as noted before, a number of them never made it.

I was fortunate to run into two veteran runners- Tom Norwood and Francois “Flint” Bordeau and we ran together for most of the race, only parting when it became apparent that they were in much better shape than I was (around the 40k mark we decided that I should use my own two legs to run rather than have them continue to drag me on the litter they had fashioned out of oak branches).  They are the reason I was able to finish at all, much less place so well.  The combination of Tom’s running skills (he wore Luna sandals the entire time) and Flint’s East Canadian tracking skills (we avoided what we were pretty sure was a rabid wolf in the first few hours) got us through a number of interesting places on the course.

We were spared navigating the more treacherous parts of the course in the dark, but as the sky brightened, so did the metaphorically maniacal glee in our RDs eyes. While the pace could indeed pick up as we could now see, we were led into areas where men fear to tread.  Up hills, down gullies and full of bushwhacking (seemingly endless crawling over/under/through trees/bushes/rocks/cacti).  Our pace slowed considerably, but having 3 sets of eyes to find the next marker assured us we were heading in the right direction (and not towards an untimely fate) and helped us make up time.  By a few hours in, we figured we were near the middle of the pack.  We reached the first checkpoint with water and decided to take a break and fill up.  checkpointThe water was in a giant round tub fed by a well that needed to be sterilized, but not necessarily filtered. We had passed 3 runners, two of whom then re-passed us at the checkpoint.  We got of there quickly, determined to catch them again and hopefully stay ahead of them.

It took us a bit, (more ups and downs, a bit of bushwhacking), but we caught them again and they were struggling.  Hudson and Chris were both running their first ultra (Chris in Lunas), having decided to run it only a few weeks before (unbelievably). Chris had knee issues and the heat was getting to Hudson.  We stayed with them for a bit, gave them some salt pills and words of encouragement, and then headed on.  This was about 12-13 miles into the race and it was a testament to them that they not only kept going, but finished well.

So, having passed them, we descended back into the special hell that Josue designed, on our way to the halfway point (15.87 miles, 4hrs 44 min).  It was at this point that we heard the incredible.  There were only three 50k runners ahead of us!  Visions of podiums and paparazzi spurred us out of the checkpoint.

I was feeling pretty good at this stage, but I wasn’t eating enough (he now says in hindsight).  To keep us occupied, though, there were a lot of interesting things to see and do.

Including what I can only think is “forest bowling” bowl

 

 

Blooming cactus staring cactus

 

 

 

 

 

Spider avoiding spider

 

 

 

 

and of course, the one thing you always (read never) do in a 50k, rock climbing!

The ups and downs faded away, and the course now became runnable.  This initially confused us as we were sure we had missed a turn somewhere- this part actually looked like a trail!  The long day of climbing started to take its toll on me, though and as Tom and Flint hit their stride, mine hit me back.

As I mentioned before, I hadn’t been eating enough as I was trying to “listen to my body” and go by feel rather than by schedule.  It worked for about 35-40k, but what I thought was silence turned out to be willful blindness and my body had to stage an intervention to get me to listen.  At the 40k checkpoint, my water was low enough to warrant a trip to the river to refill.  Flint and Tom had waited for me (we had decided to try to finish together for a “joint” 4th place finish), but it soon became apparent that I wasn’t in nearly as good a shape as they were, and I urged them to go on.  Descending about 30-40 feet to the river’s edge, I filled my water bottle, took out my ultraviolet sterilizing pen, and….

…nothing.  (Uh-oh)

If I didn’t get the water sterilized, my race was over.  Even though we only had a few miles to go, I couldn’t run it without water.  For what seemed like 30 minutes, but was actually only about 5, I tried to get the thing to work, constantly looking over my shoulder and sure that Chris, Hudson or one of the other runners would be coming into the checkpoint at any minute.  I finally got it to light up, sterilized the water, ate some food and got out of there.  One big up hill and a bit more bushwhacking, and I stumbled into the finish, 16 minutes behind Tom and Flint.  As it turned out, the closest runner was still about an hour behind me and it was another 3 ½ hours before the final runners crossed the finish line. My GPS said we did about 4700 ft of climbing, and then laughed at me.

Overall, it was a great race, very different from anything I’d ever experienced.  I made some good friends and was overawed at the limits that some people can push themselves to and still keep going.  The survival runners were inspiring and I would entertain attempting that next year, except for one challenge, the hole cave.  It’s the entrance to a bat (and other things)-filled cave that many spent an hour in.  No thanks.

Inspired? Yes Idiot? Yes, but if every mile on my quest to run 2014 for the kids at SouthSide Early Childhood Center is this entertaining, there will be an even bigger smile on my face when we open the doors to the new school!

Next run is Spirit of the Osage in two weeks (what am I thinking?)…longhorn

Shadows in the Rain

“Woke up in my clothes again this morning- don’t know exactly where I am…” After a few minutes, the world solidifies around me, and I remember-  I’m in the back of an SUV on an air mattress “camping” near the start of the Hocking Hills 60k in Ohio, it’s 5:30 am.

I had driven into the Hocking Hills, coming off of highway 33 from Columbus, as darkness crept up on me like the Bolero symphony I was inexplicably listening to on the radio (one minute, you don’t notice it, and then all of a sudden, it’s everywhere). I had made the decision to “camp” in the back of the vehicle after a dubious 1 and 1 record of camping before races.

The night passed uneventfully and I woke to a driving rain that I hoped would at least lessen if not stop entirely some time during the race. Got to the start early, checked in and then waited around with the other 30-odd runners there to attempt the 60k.  It’s a 3 loop course and there were larger numbers running the 40k, 20k, 10k and 5k races (including a 5 year old that completed the 5k, amazing!), but they were starting later than our proposed 7am start.  Since it was still quite dark, we delayed to about 7:25 and then set off into the dusky downpour.

Each loop starts in the parking lot of the Dining Lodge, winds its way up a paved road through some cabins and then, after a short slog through mud and grass, out onto highway 664 for about 2.2 miles of ups and downs.  Not a lot of shoulder, but little traffic on a Saturday morning, and the police and park rangers were out there to slow the cars down. (Only had a near miss on the final lap when a VW Beetle was not paying attention and strayed onto the shoulder).  From there, it’s up Steel Hill, the only major hill, ½ a mile long, but a couple of hundred feet straight up to the first aid station (not open yet, as we’d been warned, but there for the next two loops, thankfully).  I was using this run as a semi-training run for my Hunter-Gatherer race in Texas in two weeks, where there’d be no aid stations, so I carried everything and only took smiles and encouragement away from the aid stations.  It was still raining pretty heavily, but being in the woods provided some relief.

Out of the aid station, down the road for a mile or so, then back into the woods for a gradual, very picturesque downhill run to Rose Lake. IMG_2126This part of Ohio is unique as you are close to the hills and mountains of West Virginia and Northeast Kentucky.  There are gorges and caves and it’s a beautiful place.  I’d have more pictures, but as I think I mentioned before, it was pouring down with rain.

Out of the woods and into the Old Man’s Cave campground (where I had camped the night before) for a bit, then back into the woods as we made our way down to the gorge and the Old Man’s Cave

Old Man's Cave from above

Old Man’s Cave from above

(named after a hermit that lived there in the 19th century.  If you’re interested, a brief history is here.) Then back out onto the road for the final mile up the hill to the finish.  Just do that two more times and you’re done!

The first lap went by quickly- I ended up in a great conversation that made the miles seem inconsequential- and I finished it in 2:20 minutes.  I set off alone on the next lap (my running partner was stopping after 20k), up the road and into the rain.  The second lap saw some doubts start to creep in.  I ran mostly on my own and without music, so not only did I have time to take in the beauty of the woods, but also start to think about finishing the lap and then having to start another.  I kept reminding myself up Steel Hill- “only one more time after this”, and I almost talked myself into stopping after the second loop.  I had covered it pretty quickly (2:30) and so now had 40k finished in under 5 hours. I got away from the start and the big aid station before I could convince myself to drop.

The rain had slowed and there were some periods on the final loop where it completely stopped raining. Apart from the near miss with the Beetle, I felt better about the last loop than the second one.  I was finishing what I had set out to do and the thought kept me going.  The aid station workers at the top of Steel Hill were encouraging and as this was about 5k into the loop, I started counting down the number of 5ks I had left.  Did I mention I didn’t have my GPS? Oh, yeah…

Lacking a good packing process, I had left my GPS watch at home. Being very analytical, I was worried about not having up to date pacing and distance information, so I tried to use an app on my phone (no dice), but mostly relied on my stopwatch and an estimate of my distance, hence breaking the last loop into 5k increments.

By my estimates, I hit 50k at about 6:30 (my second best 50k time) and then began the final push for the last 10k.  I was a little worried when the second to the last aid station, about 2 or so miles out, was abandoned by the time I got there.  Cups of water were on the table, but no one in sight.  No problem, the next station was only 1.1 miles away, and I wasn’t using them anyway, but it felt like I was passing a ghost town, where the residents had left with everything but their water cups.  The next aid station was completely gone, and that’s when I began to wonder if I had missed the cutoff.

Up the hill for the last mile, I was running/walking, knowing that I would be in under 8 hours, but not sure if that was over the cutoff time.  The EMTs waved as they drove their ambulance down the road on their way out (that’s not a good sign) and park employees were starting to pick up the orange cones that warned cars of runners (strike two?).  About this time, a runner caught up to me and reminded me of the 8 hour cutoff.  She then went on to pass me and I had a short flash of competitiveness, followed by a reminder that I’m trying to be more mindful and let things go.  IMG_2129She was obviously feeling it and it actually felt good and right to let her go.  I happened to turn around not long after that brief period of enlightenment to see another run coming up the hill behind me.  Evidently, there’s a limit to my zen qualities- I wasn’t going to let two people pass me in the last mile.

I picked up the pace and finished in 7:43.  Two more runners came in after me and 5 runners that were out on the course missed the 8 hour cutoff, unfortunately.  The day started with 36 runners and only 15 completed the 60k in the pouring rain.  I ended up 13th overall and 3rd in my age group (yes, there were at least 4 people in my age group, including the overall winner).  It was a beautiful course and the volunteers that were out there did a great job.  Next stop is Texas for the Fuego y Agua 50k.  No aid stations, find your own water.  It’s going to be interesting!

Putting the Labor in Labor Day Weekend

Flatlanders 12hr race report

Round and around and around we go…The Flatlanders 6 and 12 hour timed race is held in Fenton Park and put on by the awesome pair (and fellow SLUGS) of David and Victoria White to help benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association.  It’s a 1.4 mile loop of pure fun, mixing shade with open areas and, as the title suggests, pretty flat (about 33 ft per loop).

63 toed the line that morning at 7:30.  It was a pleasant 75 degrees (heat wave having broken the day before), and the tents and self-aid stations were set up.  IMG_208841 would be running the 6 hour and 22 running the 12 and it was obvious from the start who the fast ones would be.  My goal was to stick with an 11-12 min per mile pace for as long as I could and see if I had any gas left in the tank later in the day.  3 hours in, about 10:30, I had run about 15 miles, so right on the 12 min pace.  The problem was, it was getting warm.  It was sunny and humid and the temperature was on its way to 90.  Some reports of the heat index put it at close to 100.  Not sure if that was true, but it felt like it!

To combat the heat, I had decided to try to cool off my pulse points.  I used 3 water scarfs (with gel beads or something in them that swell with water and stay relatively cool)- one around my neck and one on each wrist.  That plus the ice water I kept in an ice chest (and alternatively used to drink or spray myself with) seemed to do the trick.  At no point did I feel overheated or sick from the heat (of course, it could have been because I was moving so slowly!)  Regardless, after the first 15, I slowed considerably, taking more walking breaks, sitting a bit to eat and generally distracting myself with conversations with fellow runners.  There was a great group of people out there, so conversations were very interesting!

Clouds covered us from noon to about 2 and although it didn’t completely cool off, getting out of the sun was welcome.  There were sections that became “sun gauntlets”- 1/3 to ½  a mile of exposed course.  I had decided to try to “run the sun” and walk the shade.  Didn’t always work, but it was a good distraction.  In the meantime, I couldn’t help notice the number of times I was being lapped by the eventual winner of the 6 hour, Jon Cash.  I had lost count, but he turned in an impressive 45 miles in 6 hours for the second best distance ever.  I determined to at least do that many miles in twice the time.  Luckily, relief came in the form of my lovely wife and two boys! With Patrick in the stroller, Joseph and Sandra gave me a boost through a couple of miles.  Sandra, giving me encouragment and distracting me with stories, Joseph sprinting ahead and then saying “Can’t catch me!” or “come on dad!”.  I couldn’t have asked for a better mid race pick up.IMG_1387

As the day wore on, the heat continued to take its toll. My goal became to run enough to do sub 20 minute miles and a few times, even that was a struggle.  However, something clicked about mile 41 and I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and really push it.  Encouraged by a shout of “go FASTER!”.  I ran the next two miles at a 10 minute pace, surprising myself and starting to think that I might get the 50 miles I originally though was going to happen.

What I forgot was, at that point, I had been running for over 10 hours.  My legs reminded me and I slowed again to a 15-17 min pace.  I came around the bend for the last time and started the out and back sections (about .2 miles which everyone was doing).  The goal was to go back and forth in the final amount of time to get as far as you can.  After one or two out and backs, I once again decided “now or never” and ran the last .7 of a mile on what felt like a full sprint, but was actually 10:45 min pace, finishing with 47.8 miles, good enough for 9th overall. (and I just edged the 6 hour winner)

Compared to my 38.2 at Howl at the Moon 3 weeks earlier, I ran 10 more miles in 4 more hours.  It was cooler (15 deg at the start 10 deg cooler at the peak) and I think that made all the difference.  I will still continue to experiment, and have the 60k Hocking Hills Indian Run coming up on 9/21 where I’ll test out the UltrAspire SJ vest in preparation for the Hunter/Gatherer 50k in Texas on 10/5 (no aid stations).

Congrats to Tommy Doias on his 69.91 miles on the 12 hour, setting a new masters record and to all the other runners that braved the heat.  The aid station volunteers and lap counters were superb and went above and beyond, fending off bees and helping break down tarp/tents after the race!

Highly recommended race.

Signs and Omens- Bacon and Olives at the Howl at the Moon 8 hr

“Good afternoon folks. We’re about 40 miles outside of St. Louis, beginning our descent. Please put tray tables in the upright and locked position…” It’s Friday and I’m flying home from Boston.  I’m set to run in the Howl at the Moon 8 hour endurance run on Saturday and I think I was just given a sign as to how many miles I should attempt.  40 miles in 8 hours, average 12 minute miles? I should be able to do that…

In my quest for 2014 miles for the kids of SouthSide Early Childhood Center (http://southside-ecc.org), I’ve embarked on an ambitious plan that requires me to keep to a fairly strict running regimen.  I’ve fallen a bit behind so 40 on this run will get me over 700 and closer to being on track.  The run is a timed run around a 3.29 mile loop through a park in Danville, IL.  Don’t be confused by the title, the run is during the day and if it’s anything like other timed races I’ve run, should be a lot of fun. Billing itself as “The largest timed ultra in the United States”, there are almost 300 runners that will be toeing the line tomorrow morning.  First, though, I have to get there.

I quickly jump home, pick up my gear, kiss the wife and kids and head back out. I decide to “Jeep-camp” at the race start, using an inflatable mattress in the back of the jeep, as I’ll get there too late to set up a tent. (Those of you who read about the camping disaster in Florida may be wondering why I’m trying something similar.  Let’s just say I wasn’t going to let it beat me.  Plus this is different, I’m in my Jeep, I have a warmer sleeping bag, etc.…)

The ride up was uneventful and I found a spot about 10:30pm.  Mattress already inflated, I hopped in the back, set the alarm and went to sleep (sort of).  It took me about 30 min to fall asleep and then I was up at 5:20, never to return to the land of slumber.  (But, compared to last time, a resounding success)

Time to get ready.

I had my cooler (with ice water), salt pills and food.  All, except for the salt pills, were backups.  Being in this race for the first time, I didn’t know what nutritional support expect.  I shouldn’t have worried.

I dragged my cooler to what I can only describe as “pit row” IMG_2075.  A lot of people had pavilions set up both for them to rest in and for their adoring fans.  Immediately, a group asked if I wanted to use their tent as shade.  They were working one of the aid stations and had set up near the start.  It’s that kind of camaraderie that you don’t see everywhere and it’s one of the reasons I really like the ultra community. Thus set up, I eagerly awaited the start.

I knew at least two runners from the SLUGs (St. Louis Ultrarunners Group) would be there and at the start, immediately met up with Rob Raquet-Schofield and Jen Eichelberger (they finished 3rd and 7th overall respectively, and I always find it’s good to know real runners).  I stayed with Rob for about ½ a lap and I somehow kept up with Jen for the first two laps (6.58 mi).  I checked my watch and we were averaging about 8:45 miles, so a bit faster than I should have been going (I decided to see if starting fast then tapering quickly would work).  I switched to run/walk and Jen disappeared into the distance…  The next few laps were uneventful, but it was getting hotter.  I resolved to eat at every aid station (at least a little bit) and was sticking with 20 ounces of water as I knew it would get warmer  The first aid station had bacon and the “top of the hill” aid station had green olives, which I quickly learned should be eaten in moderation, but I figured the sodium would help. So, I began a routine of water, bacon, olives.  Unfortunately, too much of all three.

By about the 6th lap (around 20 miles in) my stomach had slowed me down.  Not bad, just a very full feeling I couldn’t shake.  My heart rate also wouldn’t come down as much as I’d like during my walk breaks, so I laid off the bacon and cut back on the water. Another few laps of moderation, both in pace and culinary indulgence, and I was feeling better.  I picked the pace back up, but I had lost too much time to really hit the 40 mile mark.  Rob and Jen had kindly shouted words of encouragement as they lapped me (on their way to podium finishes) and I had some great conversations with runners of various abilities and experiences.  One guy I spoke with had run over 90,000 miles, another had climbed most of the 14,000 ft peaks in Colorado.  I was wearing my SouthSide 1inspiredidiot shirt and that stimulated conversation from time to time as well.  As I had hit my rhythm, I really enjoyed the run.

With about 30 minutes to go, I finished my 11th lap.  The race organizers, to allow everyone to get in as many miles as possible in the 8 hours, start a ¼ mile out and ¼ mile back loop during the last 30 minutes of the race.  I finished my final loop at the perfect time and headed out for the out and backs.  I completed 4 loops for another two miles, finishing with 38.19 miles, enough for 9th in my age group and 57th overall. That worked out to about a 12:35 minute per mile average pace, so not far off my original goal.  As for the announcement being a sign?  Maybe..

If you look back, what the pilot said was “…40 miles…put tray tables in the upright and locked position…” Clearly meaning that if I wanted to get 40 miles in, I had to stop eating as much (I have trouble snacking on planes). I didn’t listen or interpret the words correctly.  What I did learn, though was:

  1. Pace- I have to stop thinking that I can sprint at the beginning and still finish strong. Patience and Persistence need to be my motto.
  2. Watering/Fueling- First, I can’t drink/fuel too much in anticipation or try to follow a regime designed for Death Valley.  I need to start slowly and then respond as my body demands.  Second, even though bacon and olives are awesome, like everything else, they should be eaten in moderation.
  3. Isolation- I usually train with music and have mostly run with it too.  This marks the second full race I’ve done without music.  I missed it during some parts, but overall enjoyed the conversations and environment a lot more.
  4. Gear- You can find shoes/a system that won’t cause blisters.  What has finally seemed to work for me is: Body Glide in between the toes, DryMax Socks and Altra Torins (NFI in anything)
  5. Signs and Omens- understand the ENTIRE message.  Or, just reinterpret it after the fact…

Regardless, I’m working my way through these 2014 miles for a greater purpose- to help the kids and families at SouthSide Early Childhood Center.  If you get a chance, take a look at their site (http://southside-ecc.org).  If you get two chances, come down and see how they’re helping the kids now and where our new school will be.  If you get three chances, help us help them by donating!  If you need a sign, here you go…IMG_2077

The Devil’s in the Details- Devil’s Lake 50k Race Report

As I dive deeper into ultrarunning and running in general, my propensity to try new things just to see if they work can have positive (substituting music for conversation helped me PR in Arkansas) and negative (camping in FL helped me convince myself to DNF) effects on my races.  So, as I was preparing for the DWD Devil’s Lake 50k in Baraboo, Wisconsin, I decided to experiment again.  This time, it was with fueling.

First, a little bit about me:  I like to eat.  I enjoy food and while I’ve been lucky enough not to have to battle real weight or health issues because of it, I can sometimes obsess over it.  When I run long distances, I also like to eat.  It gives me a break and a lift, and especially at races, I find it interesting what makes it to the aid station table (baked potatoes, raw potatoes, chips, pretzels, gummi bears, peanut butter Oreos, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, beer, etc.).  What I can’t stomach are the gels, which I attribute to my jaunt in the desert last year, in which I was eating them for 20 hours straight and had a few issues.  Let me be really clear, gels are now in the same category as apple schnapps.  High School Graduation put me off apple schnapps permanently, and I’m as violently opposed to gels.

So, usually I carry a few waffles or other food on me, but because the aid stations are so close and so well stocked at DWD events, I decided to try handheld bottle only and then eat and refill the bottle at the aid stations.  There was also a voice in the back of my mind that came from reading about others and how they fuel that suggested that I might not really have to eat at all over a 7(ish) hour timeframe, because others don’t feel the need to. Remind me to stop listening to voices…

Beautiful DawnThe dawn broke brilliantly as we waited in a field below a ski slope at the Devil’s Head resort.  Since the first few sections were supposed to be fairly hilly, my plan was to start near the back and take it easy.  Pick up the pace a bit on the downhills and flats, and generally run about 7 hours and some change and have a fun day.  The area we were running in was carved out by an ice age glacier, so I was looking forward to the scenery.  The horn went off at 5:30 (50k and 50m starting together) and about 300 (check) runners took off into the woods.

The first 2.75 miles were uphill (600ft by my watch, 960 according to the race documents) and then you descend about the same as we did the first 5 mile loop.  My plan was to do that in an average of 15 min miles and at this point, I was feeling good and ahead (maybe too far) of that plan.  Mile 6 had a 420ft hill and mile 7 had a 280ft hill, but I finished the first 10 miles in 2:10 about 2 min/mile ahead of my plan (even running the last mile in a 9:40)  We had climbed about 1600ft, and it was about at this point that I started entertaining thoughts of jumping up to the 50 miler.  Silly thoughts like that have no place in my racing…

The next four miles were mostly downhill as we approached the lake and I maintained steady 11 min miles.  So far I had passed through about 4 aid stations, two that had food, but that voice in my head kept my eating to the odd potato. Then we were climbing the bluffs by the lake.

Carved by glaciers with pavers

Carved by glaciers with pavers

When I was moving, my pace was good (13-14 min miles), but the breathtaking scenery caused me to pull over from time to time and take some pics. IMG_1999

Primitive Aid Station

Primitive Aid Station

The sun was starting to come out and it was starting to get warmer, and mile 20 (across a warm field with shoulder-high grass )brought us into the “bug pit” aid station (and then a 1.3 mile out and back brought us back there), so at about mile 21, I had a chance to change my socks and eat.  I accomplished one (socks), but not the other.

At this point, I wasn’t on pace for a PR, but I was doing pretty well by my standards.  IMG_2001The picture-taking had cost some time, but I had done 20 miles in 4 ½ hours and was ahead of plan, so I headed back out across the field.

Back to the hills!

Back to the hills!

It had definitely gotten warmer (the high crept up to 82), but I was now running with someone and the great discussions kept my mind off the distance.  We ran the next mile faster than my average, and then started climbing.  She was much stronger than I was and climbed the 433ft of mile 23 much better than I did. On the descent, I started to get a bit hungry, and miles 24 and 25 saw me sitting down for a few minutes on a bench and generally trying to remember where the next aid station was (and hoping it had some food).  My minimal fueling strategy was not working out so well.

Down, down, down

Down, down, down

Mile 26 will look slow if you’re looking at the splits <Click Here>, but what you can’t see is me shoving about 12 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my face during that time.  I filled my water bottle with a mixture of Gatorade and water and headed out.  I think it worked, as I ran the next mile in 12:27 and passed a few surprised people who had seen me sprawled on the bench.  I caught up with a group that was taking a break a the top of a hill just before mile 28.  One of them, Andy, agreed to run with me the rest of the way and, knowing Guinness had long since left and taken their record book with them, we took it easy, swapped stories about our young kids (he had just had a baby. Well, his wife had) and cruised into the finish.

Overall a pretty enjoyable race.  There were a lot of people out there (at some point there were 10k, half marathoners, marathoners, 50k and 50m runners on the trail) and it was great to be able to give and receive encouragement from different runners throughout the day. The volunteers were great, especially at the couple of road crossings and the aid stations, and the scenery was unbelievable in places.  My hope is that I remember not to listen to that voice in my head when it’s saying obviously preposterous things.

Note: Reading back through the report, I noticed that even though I titled it “The Devil’s in the Details”, I didn’t really talk about any specific details.  The report itself is pretty detailed, but then what am I implying? Discuss…

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