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

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

Is Less Better? War Eagle 50k Race Report

I woke up to the sound of birds and thunder. Checking the clock it was only 1:20 AM, still a few more hours until I had to be up. The birds, it turns out, were the noises coming from the air conditioner. The thunder was from a massive storm that would greet us all later that morning. Not knowing whether this was a good thing or a bad thing, I went back to sleep…

The War Eagle 50k near Bentonville, Arkansas started, as most do, with packet pick up the day before.

Great Shirts!

Great Shirts!

I drove down from St. Louis, checked in, met RD Jeff Genova (great guy, dedicated to the sport and his race) and asked about the presentation that was being given by Luis Escobar. Now I know what most of you are thinking and no, it’s not THAT Luis Escobar, the 7th Marquis of the Guadalquivir Marshes, he died in 1991. No, I’m referring to the famous runner (anyone who’s read “Born to Run” (not the Springsteen Autobiography) will recognize him), photographer (he’s photographed runners all over the world, including the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico) and Race Director of the Born To Run Ultra Running Extravaganza. I was excited because the book had completely changed my attitude towards running and my form and was what got me started doing ultras.

So we kick off with a great presentation by Luis, complete with stories about Micah True, Luis’s Badwater races and, of course the Tarahumara. http://www.norawas.org/ The glimpse Luis gave us was inspiring. They run, but not for medals or buckles. They run for pride and they run for bags of corn to feed their families. Near the end of the presentation, Luis, who’s been down to Copper Canyon to run with them a number of times, translated the mantra they use in preparation for the race:

Earth is my body

Wind is my breath

Water is my blood

Fire is my spirit

He urged us to simplify our running. The Tarahumara run in sandals and loose clothing. That’s it. No GPS, no watches, just feeling the run. I resolved to not wear my GPS for the race the next day and just run by feel…

Ok, that didn’t happen. I’m way too analytical and after a sobering discussion with my wife, she pointed out that I would probably lose my mind if I didn’t have it. So, I resolved to wear it, but not to look at it too much. I should be able to do that.

So after a fitful night’s sleep and a re-taping of my toes (less learned- don’t tape your toes the night before, then go to bed without your socks on. The tape edges tend to peel away in the night) I was ready to go.

IMG_1884It was pouring rain as we got to the visitor’s center and the start of the race. The parks department was incredible, opening up the center to allow us to get in out of the rain and cold. IMG_1886I was surprised by the number of people there for the 50, 25 and 10k races despite the weather, but I shouldn’t have been. As I was learning, the respect for RD Jeff Genova and his team to run a safe race meant that just about everyone who signed up showed up knowing that if Jeff said “Go”, there was nothing to worry about. Because of the lightning in the area, we delayed about 30 minutes, but then got going a little after 7. My goal was to run the 1st half in about 13 minute miles, and run the second half in 14 minute miles to knock another 30 minutes off my PR. The rain stopped after about an hour and the sun didn’t come out, so the temps stayed in the ideal range. IMG_1891In addition, the aid stations were so well stocked and thoughtfully placed (about every 3 miles- and they included the INGENIOUS Peanut Butter Oreos! (NFI)), that after 8 miles, I dropped my race vest off at the Piney Road aid station and opted to run the rest of the way with just a handheld bottle. Losing that weight really helped.

I cruised into the Piney Road aid station at mile 15 averaging 12:35 (I had only looked at my watch a few times- I felt that showed INCREDIBLE discipline), so felt good about my plan and how things had been going. I had gotten behind a woman about a mile back and we had been chatting (narrow single track gives you three choices- hang on someone’s heels, pass them when possible or get to know them). Deb (not Bev as I previously reported. I think I was suffering from trail ear) from Kansas City (as I later found out) was running this race after completing much longer distances. We were running about the same pace, had a good conversation and I asked her if it was OK if we ran together a bit more. Running trails is very different than road races. In my experience, more people talk and help each other out. We both agreed that talking kept our minds away from the demons convincing you to slow down, so on we went. Out of the rocking Pine Road aid station and on to the second half of the race. Little did I know, but the GPS was acting up and it was not recording the full distance. So, as Deb and I hit an aid station at what I thought was 21 miles, we were actually at 23 miles and moving quickly. At aid stations, and at a couple of places along the trail, we passed other runners and it was Deb’s pull that kept me moving. As we hit the last aid station, I risked a glance at the watch and couldn’t believe our time. We were on pace for sub 6 ½ hours and only had a few miles left to go! The last mile climbed 200 feet, the first 100 of which was in .2 miles (10% incline) (thanks for that Jeff), but we motored through it. Deb and I finished in 6:15 and some change and then sat down for a bit. In the ensuing raffle, I missed out on the camouflaged doormat, but managed to score a nice timex sports watch!

What began with ominous skies turned out to be my best race yet, both from a time and an experience standpoint. Luis reminded us to “run gentle” and I was able to enjoy a run with minimal gadget use (did I mention I also ran the entire time without music? that for me is tantamount to torture normally, but I found I didn’t need it). Jeff and his volunteers made it so that we could all focus on the run rather than on what we needed to carry or measure. I’ll take these lessons with me as I go forward, and who knows? If less is better, maybe running free of the gadgets may be best? I’ll have to get back to you on that. By the way, here’s the elevation profile, etc if anyone needs it going forward: URL:

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/322131126

By the way, You probably knew Bentonville is home to WalMart,IMG_1882 but did you know it was also home to the Waffle Hut?

Not big enough for a House

Not big enough for a House

Disaster in Perspective and Finishing in Your Age Group- DWD Gnawbone 50k

I cried because I had little sleep because of a backed up toilet and what I think was a rabid deer, until I met a man who had driven 10 hours and slept in his car with his family to run this race….

That being said, the other lesson I learned was that sticking to a plan actually worked.  First, on training: I knew there would be hills and I knew it wouldn’t be as bad as Louisville, but my hill and strength sessions seems to have paid off.  Even the steep hills (the worst coming later in the race) didn’t have me gasping for air or pausing every few steps like fish at the Eiffel Tower (metaphors aren’t my strong point).  But enough about me, here’s my report.

IMG_1828We started at 6:15 am in what I’ve always known as “blue-dark”.  Just light enough to see the person in front of you, not so much every root and rock.  After my DNF, I was determined to be prepared:

  • Sleep? Check (kind of).  The family came down and we stayed in a “cabin” rather than camping.  However, we had to move rooms due to a rodent incident and then the toilet backed up in the second room.  The net result was about 5 hours of sleep (about 4 ½ more than the last race, so I was loving it!)
  • Water/Fueling? Check.  I would only drink water, eat at the aid stations and drop an S-Cap an hour (it was pretty cool outside, so I didn’t need to overdose on sodium).   I also used the Camelbak Octane XCT (NFI) with a 3 liter bladder so I would only have to stop when I wanted to.  I also carried a few waffles in case I got caught starving between two aid stations.
  • Drop bags? Check.  We had the opportunity to have two drop bags, one at 10 miles and one at 20.  Since it was going to be wet and muddy, I had a pair of socks and shoes in the 10 mile bag and the same in the 20.  My Hokas were in the 20 mile bag just in case I felt I would need the extra cushioning to help me through the last 10 miles.

So, back to the start.

Leg 1- 3.8 mi- “I’ve Been Slimed” My plan was to take the first hill (mud and 500 feet of elevation gain) slowly.  I planned 20 min miles, I did 14 ½. The mud was pretty bad, but having run the ½ marathon here in 2011, I knew what to expect.  From there, I finished off the first 4 miles in just under an hour. Ahead of my schedule, but not killing myself.  The aid station had bananas, so I picked up my first meal of the day.

IMG_1829Legs 2-5 14.1 mi- Various ups and downs, some nice views as we ran around a lake.  Walked the hills when they got a bit too steep, ran the downs.  My plan was to be at a little over 4 hours through 18 miles.  By the 18th mile, I was at 4 hours, 13 mins.  It was like I planned it! I will admit that about mile 15, I started focusing on the drop bag at mile 20.  I had passed up the 10 mile drop bag because my feet weren’t too wet, but a few dunkers and some rocks had me fantasizing about the Hokas.  It became the vision pulling me forward to mile 20.  Little did I know that sometimes dreams can become nightmares…IMG_1831

The last 3.4 miles to the aid station is called “Devil’s Daughter”.  A lot of water, mud and muck with a  few hills thrown in.  IMG_1830It’s evident in my times (16, 14 and 20 min miles) that running was not an option because of the terrain and having to pick your way through the fun.  Because I felt good, though, and had pace myself I did something I’ve never done- passed people.  It was a strange feeling, and one I hope to repeat! IMG_1832

I hit the aid station/drop bag point, changed into the Hokas and bounded off with dry feet and renewed cushioning.  Mile 22 slightly changed that perspective.  The leg is called “Stairway to Heaven” for a reason.  There are two hills, one short, one longer, both “fun”.  The first hill is a hands and knees, grab what you can, pray you don’t slide, uphill struggle.  It’s only about 200-250 feet, but it was slick and I passed some people as they slid by me (I was going up, they were on their way back down).  The shoes I had changed out of had much better grip than the Hokas, but there was no going back.  Handhold by handhold, I scaled the hill.

What waited for me next was at mile 24.  The “Stairway to Heaven” itself.  A staircase that seemed to go on forever, but in reality a 400 foot high hill that someone thoughtfully built a staircase into. 17 minutes and 43 seconds later, I was through that nightmare and into the 2nd to last aid station.

I then settled into horse trails (behind a few horses churning up the mud even more) and was caught by the guy from the beginning of my report.  We kept a decent pace and chatted through the last 5 miles, slipping here and there, descending the extremely muddy ski slope near the end and then wading in a waste deep stream while his daughter paced us for the last mile.

Ski Slope Hill- Muddier than it looks!

Ski Slope Hill- Muddier than it looks!

He had come down from Michigan the night before, slept in the car with his family, they had run the 10k and they were going back later that day.  People I know call me crazy, but there’s always someone out there that will outdo you!  Our great conversation kept my mind off of the last 5 miles, and I finished with a PR at 7:26:52.  The time was good enough to finish in my age group, but not in the top 5. :)

Overall, very happy and it got my head back into things after the DNF.  Dances With Dirt is a great organization.  Aid stations were stocked and friendly and apart from the accommodations the night before, a great time was had by all.

War Eagle 50k in less than 3 weeks!

Lessons Learned from the Swamp

I ran the Dances With Dirt (DWD) Green Swamp 50 mile trail run this past weekend, and I was claimed by the swamp at 39.93 miles.  I still had about 12 miles to go thanks to a wrong turn earlier in the day, but I was done mentally, which convinced me that I was done physically (before I fell in the swamp, was bitten or eaten by something, or decided that wrasslin’ gators was a good idea).  So what happened?

Basically, a lot of things, but in my analysis, like the butterfly effect, it all stems from one bad (in hindsight) decision I made that started a chain of events.  Some call it communing with nature, going primitive, sleeping under the stars, camping.  Whatever label you place on it, if you’re not experienced (looking in the mirror), I found it’s not a good idea to have your first experience be at a race site before you’re attempting a 50 miler that you’ve never run before.  It all started innocently enough…

IMG_1710I had everything set up and ready to go in a matter of minutes.  Got to meet two of my neighbors, who were down to run the marathon and 50k respectively.  I had forgotten my sleeping bag, so got a ridiculously inexpensive 45 degree one from a local sports store (it was only supposed to get down to 50 that night and I assumed that the bag, plus my socks and fleece would carry me through the night).  Grabbed some dinner at a local Italian place and got ready to settle in for the night.

Lesson 1: Now, camping at a race start is not like a campground.  You’re pretty close together, and although we had settled in fairly early, not everyone else had.  It wasn’t loud, nor was anyone being inconsiderate, I just didn’t realize how much noise there was “in nature”.  Oh, and then it started to get cold.  I think I finally got an hour or so of sleep and woke up freezing.  Either I have a low cold tolerance (highly possible), the weather forecast was wrong, my sleeping bag’s rating wasn’t thoroughly checked before it left Shanghai, or a combination of the three.  My feet, even taped and with socks on, quickly lost feeling and my face soon followed.  Getting up to go to the port-a-john every few hours probably didn’t help, and all in all, I think I got about two hours of sleep.  No problem, right?  I’ve dealt with sleep issues on long runs before!  The difference, though was that on both of those runs I had a crew there to make decisions for me.

As the race directors started to set up at 4:30 the next morning, I decided to go ahead and get up and pack the tent.  First and only smart decision I made.

IMG_1713 The race started in the dark at 5:30.  It was still about 50 deg, so started with the fleece.  The first loop was 5 miles and after that we’re back at the start and drop bags, so I dropped both the fleece and my light there around X:XX.  During that first hour, I was leading a small group, so didn’t stick to my 4:2 pace, didn’t drink water and took no electrolytes.  Lesson 2: Stick with the plan you made when rested and thinking clearly…

Heading out into the next 20 mile loop, I was again with a group and reluctant to settle into my pace.  I had some ridiculous notion that I was upholding a reputation and kept running.  I had started drinking after the second hour (I had a coke and a banana at the start, so I might have been on schedule), but had completely forgotten about my electrolyte pills.  I was on a pace for a 9 hour finish, much to fast for my inexperienced, slow self.

Through the sand, through the mangrove swamps we moved on.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I was backing off on the pace, bringing it more in line with my original plan, but getting tired and I missed some very obvious “wrong way” signs coming out of the “traffic jam” aid station at 24 miles and added another mile or so before being turned around by runners doing the half marathon.  It was also warming up, but I felt OK as I came back to the start, ending the first half.  I tweeted my progress and my hope to finish the second half in 6 hours (completing the first half in just over 5).  I was hurting, so had planned to take some ibuprofen, forgot, got about half a mile away and reasoned that I’d be back in 4 1/2 miles so no problem.

Actually, the second loop was run in reverse, so the 20 mile loop was first, followed by the 5.  Once I realized that, I really started to doubt my ability to finish.  Lesson 3: Pay attention…

So, my pace continued to slow, and I was appearing to hit the deeper sand more often, struggling to keep any kind of reasonable pace.  At mile 30, I was really slowing down, taking much more frequent walk breaks, and down to just under a 15 minute mile.  Mentally, I started into a zone I’d like to call “I’m stopping for them, not me”.  I started thinking about my drive back to my sister’s and how tired I’d be if I kept going.  How I’d miss a planned dinner with them on my last night.  How I might not make it up for my flight, denying my wife and sons the opportunity to see me as soon as possible on Sunday.  In other words, it would be selfish not to stop.  Then, I got passed by a turtle…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That wasn’t so bad in and of itself, but when he started giving me a hard time, I knew I was in trouble.

When he broke into the Harlem Shake, I started looking forward to the next aid station and getting off the course…

Luckily, it was manned (it wasn’t on the first loop) and one of the great volunteers (in my haze, I’ve forgotten his name, but he was a snowbird from Michigan) drove me for what seemed like an hour back to the start. (Did I mention how great they all were?)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So, I need sleep. I need to stick with the plan and not get wrapped up in the race. I need  to pay attention.  I need to plan a race so I’m not worrying about being selfish.  And, most importantly, I need to stay away from turtles.

In perspective, a 40 mile DNF (did not finish) isn’t the end of the world.  I’m in one piece and working towards the 2014 mile goal for the year.  Maybe now, I’m a bit wiser too. (yeah right).  Next race is in May- 50k in Indiana…Time to pick myself up and get moving again!

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