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)

IMG_2320

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!

IMG_2323

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!

IMG_2325

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 189 other followers