Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Race Report: Rocky Raccoon 100

I came into Rocky Raccoon feeling like I had unfinished business.  My first trip to Rocky, in 2017, was both an encouraging attempt and a total disaster.  I entered the race hoping to run 15:00-15:30, executed a near-perfect race plan over the opening 60 miles (9:12), and was still in position for a strong sub-16:00, 6th place finish with 20 miles to go before being reduced to a walk by a scary breathing issue that I had not experienced previously nor since then.  I came away 12th in 17:46, disappointed by the final result but convinced that I had been ready to run close to 15:30, and that I fell short of that goal only due to back luck, not anything I had done wrong in terms of preparation, strategy, or nutrition.  After a solid showing at Leadville in August I once again had my sights set on a "fast" time and a top-10 finish in one of the more competitive hundreds in the country.

My buildup, though not quite as ideal as it had been in 2017, was still solid.  I was able to clock some good miles and solid workouts, though weather conditions usually forced us into surges on the roads and trails as opposed to the unflinching environment of the track, where I had spent much of my quality time two years earlier.  I knew, objectively, that my workouts were not as good as they had been the first time around.  My long runs, too, were not as plentiful as I had hoped, though I had two or three efforts over 30 miles; I topped out at about 5 hours for a single run, and things were not quite as effortless as they've been in the past.  After my Alumni XC race over Thanksgiving weekend--which, again, went well enough, but not up to the standards I'd run the previous couple of years--I wasn't able to get in either of my two favorite winter prep races, the Viking Run (for which I was traveling overseas with my family) or the Recover From the Holidays 50K (which was rescheduled for a different weekend than usual, preventing me from being able to attend).  Missing them wasn't a huge deal, but it meant that in terms of racing, I had a single 5K to my name since Leadville--not great.  But I had done enough solid training and felt strong enough in the weeks leading up to the race that I thought 16 hours was a possibility.  For the first time in a decade, the race would not serve as the US 100mi trail championships, but the field was still solid.  Ian Sharman, the course record holder (12:44!) and a nine-time top-10 finisher at Western States, would be back for the first time in five years.  Dave Laney, the 2015 Ultrarunner of the Year, would be there, as well as two-time Badwater champ Harvey Lewis and sub-15:00 runner Catlow Shipek.  As usual, I would have to run my own race, hope for good things to happen, and see if I could work my way up the field in the late stages for a top-10 finish.

At the start
I was thrilled when my buddy Kevin confirmed he'd join me in Huntsville to crew and pace.  Kevin and I started training together in earnest last spring, when he was getting back into some serious running and I was casting about for someone to do hard midweek workouts with after Laura moved away and Dr. Mike got injured.  We absorbed him quickly into our little dirtbag scene, and he had his first ultra experience when he crewed and then paced the final twelve miles at Leadville.  Since then he's been hooked.  I paced him to an unsuccessful BQ attempt at Hartford in the fall, but we'll take another shot at that this spring before he makes the jump into the ultra world himself.  He was kind enough to start a business trip to California a couple days early and give up his weekend to get me to the finish line.  We were also joined by James McCowan, the absurdly talented Vassar XC coach who had crashed and burned in his first 100K attempt at Bandera the month before.  Not three days after struggling through a 7:53 second 50K at Bandera, James was texting me about taking a shot at redemption at Rocky, which for the first time would include a 100K.  And so our little three-man posse landed in Houston on Thursday and made our way to the course for a shakeout jog on Friday afternoon.  There had been a good deal of recent rain, but we saw relatively little mud in our recon of the first three miles of so of the trail, which was a good sign.  We had a few hiccups--I put my hand on a fire ant nest while stretching during the race briefing, picking up several painful pustules; our hotel in Huntsville had no fucking hot water for the twelve hours we were there--but in general, we made it to the start on Saturday morning relatively unscathed.

Lap 1: Searching for flow
Course map and elevation profile
I went into the race with a goal of about 3:50-3:55 for each 25-mile lap, working out the aid station splits based on about a 9:15/mile pace.  And I was able to hit those splits pretty well on lap 1.  I just wasn't able to get comfortable doing it.  Not that the effort level was too high; I was careful not to let focus on time and forget to monitor effort, and I stuck to my usual early-race plan of dialing back effort and not worrying about place or splits.  But from a mental standpoint this wasn't as easy as it has been in other races.  I felt like I was expending too much mental energy trying to convince myself not to worry about splits.  Then I'd hit an aid station in exactly the split I wanted, but instead of thinking, "Great, you're hitting your splits, just relax," I became more anxious: "Well, you're hitting your splits, don't fuck up the next one."  I almost wished I was running minutes behind schedule, so I could just forget about the splits and maybe settle into a more relaxed mental state.  Maybe it was the nature of the course--basically three separate out-and-back sections per loop, ensuring tons of feedback on both place and time--that contributed to my general unease.  Or maybe it was my GI system, which didn't seem as settled as I'd like and caused me to pull over for a pit stop at about the 12-mile mark, giving up a couple of minutes.  I also had a weird hotspot/pressure point on the top of my foot, which despite a quick stop at the Damnation Aid Station at 10 miles I couldn't seem to readjust.  Whatever it was, it wasn't until the last few miles of the lap that I finally found what felt like a natural rhythm.  When it finally clicked, just past the last aid station of the lap, it was a huge relief, and I enjoyed the final three miles into the end of the lap immensely.  This would be prove to be true for most of the rest of the day--the last few miles of each lap were among the easiest and most enjoyable for me.  I finished lap one in 3:53--right on schedule, even with my poop break--in about 18th place or so.  Kevin switched out my water bottle on my HydraQuiver Single Barrel, gave me a few extra GUs and a dry t-shirt, and sent me on my way.

Nearing the end of lap 1, finally in rhythm.
Photo: No Sleep Media
Lap 2: Highs and lows
It was way too early to start thinking about places, but again, the feedback was omnipresent, and you couldn't help but notice where you stood and what the gaps were.  And over the first half of lap two, those gaps were dropping steadily.  The top five runners were continuing to pull away, but I had pegged many of the next ten, including Harvey, and women's leader Amy Hamilton, who had blown by me at the 6.5-mile aid station of lap 1 and proceeded to put over ten minutes on me in the next 19 miles.  I was keeping the effort level steady, trying not to get caught up in racing, but I was hitting splits well and rolling up on people.  I had been dreading the out-and-back from Damnation, remembering the toll those trails had taken on me in 2017; but at this early stage, on the way out to the turnaround of lap two, I was mowing people down, and by the time we reached the minimalist Far Side Aid Station, about 39 miles in (just over 6 hours), I had moved all the way up to tenth place.  Less than a mile later I had passed Amy and was running in ninth, feeling great.

Power line section of lap 2
Photo: No Sleep Media
One of the peculiar things about ultrarunning is how quickly things can turn on you, how massive highs can be replaced by crushing lows.  (Yes, I'll link the song at the bottom.)  At 39 miles I was on top of the world.  At 43 miles I was ready to drop.  In fact, I'm convinced that if I had been at the start/finish at that point, instead of seven miles away at Damnation, I would've dropped.  Over the course of maybe a mile, I had become listless and disinterested.  I was overheating: it wasn't hot, temperatures were only in the mid-60s, but it was humid; the humidity never dropped below 90% for the day.  Even when I finished, shortly past midnight, it was 58 degrees with 98% humidity.  The air was swampy and the footing was the same.  There were between ten and fifteen spots on the course, each between 5-25 meters long or so, which were just pits of mud, requiring us to stop and attempt to pick our way around, or just slog through ankle-deep, shoe-sucking crud.  And since we hit each of those spots twice per lap, we wound up with about 100 mud crossings, not only slowing me down and disturbing my rhythm, but turning my feet into hamburger.  I walked out of Damnation as all of my recent passes streamed by me, dropping me back into the mid-teens, trying to find some motivation to keep going.  After a couple of minutes of walking, I stopped, closed my eyes, and forced myself to reset mentally.  I needed to recognize where these feelings of despair and self-pity were coming from, acknowledge them, and move on.  It took a minute or two, but I was able to refocus and started moving, slowly at first but then with renewed energy, back down the trail.  I got back to the Nature Center Aid Station at 46 miles and saw Chad Lasater, with whom I've shared many miles of trail between Bandera and RR100, passing out fluids.  We chatted briefly, renewing my spirits even a bit more, and I was able to get a solid rhythm back over the final few miles, reaching 50 miles in about 8:10, just a few minutes behind many of the folks I'd been trading places with earlier.  Energy-wise, I felt ready to charge back out, but I needed to take care of my feet.  Kevin peeled off my socks, dried my feet, and lubricated them with Chamois butter; then I pulled on some dry socks and changed my trusty but nearly ruined Salomon Sense Ultras for a clean pair of Hoka Speedgoats. (I don't know which model.  The black and red ones.)  It took nearly ten minutes, but it was a crucial change, as my feet couldn't have survived much longer in their previous state; with fresh socks and dry shoes, I felt ready to roll.

Lap 3: Suffering
100K champ James McCowan
Photo: Kevin Borden
I had seen James again on lap 2, holding a huge lead over second place and I knew not all that far behind me coming into the 50-mile mark.  Kevin had planned on running parts of each of the last two laps with me, but I knew I really wanted him for the Damnation out-and-back of each of those laps, and wanted him to focus on getting out there without expending too much energy, so I told him to hang back at the 50-mile mark, crew James for his final pass through, and then take the shortest route out to Damnation.  I got caught up over the first few miles running with two other guys who were moving a little better than I was, overdoing it a little bit, and stopped to chat with Chad again at Nature Center on the way out before heading back onto the main part of the course.  I caught up with Kevin a bit later and we ran together for about a mile before I made the left turn to run the out-and-back to the Gate station and he turned right to wait for me at Damnation.  I ran solidly to the gate and back, but struggled on the stretch to Damnation and picked up Kevin feeling pretty poorly.  He was supportive and positive as usual, and put up with me walking slowly out of the aid station and struggling badly over the first few miles before finding my rhythm.

I don't remember a ton from that point forward.  We had sections where I moved really well and sections where I struggled badly, the latter seeming to outnumber the former.  I don't recall specific issues, just not feeling great for long stretches.  But the conditions were taking their toll on lots of folks, and despite my struggles, we actually picked up several spots over that stretch.  Kevin pushed me back to the Nature Center, where I left him to make his way back to Damnation for our final lap, and I headed toward the finish.  I reached the end of lap 3 in full suffer mode, legs feeling generally OK but severely lacking in motivation.  It was now dark, and I wasn't sure where I stood in terms of place, though I was pretty sure I was near the top 10.  I sat in my folding chair, trying to force myself to get back up and keep moving, wanting nothing more than to just stop.  James was there, having secured a dominating and redemptive win, and he shepherded me through my third t-shirt change and second sock change.  He also stuffed my raincoat in my pack, as the forecast called for some light rain. and convinced me to take a Buff with me for the final lap.  I didn't want to, but finally relented and put it on as a wristband--thank god.

Lap 4: Despair and deliverance
The first ten miles of the lap were a slog.  I walked most of the uphills, picked my way around mud pits, and basically just tried to cover ground, not caring about time, place, or anything else.  I had come through 75 miles in about 13 hours--an hour slower than my goal--and had basically given up on even beating my disappointing time of two years earlier.  Now I just needed to finish.  Seeing Kevin at Damnation lifted my spirits, though, as did the realization that we were now only fifteen miles away from the end.  The mud was really messing with my head as well as my feet, but when we hit the dry patches, I started to move a little bit better.  About a mile out of Damnation I started feeling some tightness in my left calf, but I was able to adjust my stride slightly to lessen the discomfort.  I couldn't really push off my toes, making running uphill very difficult, but fortunately the uphills over the next few miles were pretty short and I simply power hiked them, running a solid 10-11 minute pace on the flats and downhills.  Kevin kept up a steady stream of positive chatter and reminders to eat, and we made pretty decent time on the out-and-back section.  Despite the dark and a bit of a drizzle, I felt incredibly hot, so Kevin filled my bottle with mostly ice and a little water at Far Side, which seemed to help a little.

About a mile out from Damnation on the return, disaster struck.  My calf suddenly grabbed and my leg nearly gave way; I stumbled and caught myself, but couldn't recover a running stride.  I limped into Damnation and sat.  Kevin found a Stick from one of the volunteers and we spent a couple of minutes trying to roll out the calf, which seemed like it helped a little.  I was still hot, so I pulled my Buff onto my neck and stuffed it with ice, which I think was the single best decision I made all day.

Hamburger feet.
Photo: James McCowan
We walked out of the aid station, seven miles from the finish.  I was limping, frustrated.  I knew I had moved into the top 10 but I also knew I wouldn't hold it if I couldn't run.  Every thirty seconds or so, I tried unsuccessfully to run a few steps.  After half a mile, it loosened up to the point where I could run for a little while on flat ground or downhills; uphills still required a gimpy walk.  Kevin remained relentlessly positive, asking if I wanted to try running a 30-seconds on, 30-second off pattern, but I told him flat out I couldn't even make myself commit to that.  At this point it really was terrain-dependent.  Still, as we made our way back towards the Nature Center I kept testing it; after a little while, I could run almost normally on flats, then I could do a fast walk on uphills, then a slow run.  A mile from the Nature Center, with five miles remaining, I suddenly felt like I was flying.  We ran an uphill 10:30 into the aid station, where James was waiting with a fresh Coke and I mortified a volunteer by slathering Chamois butter all over my extraordinarily chafed nether regions.  I refilled my makeshift ice bandanna and took off solo over the last four miles.  I had been averaging about 40 minutes over that section on the previous three laps and knew I'd need to go under 43 minutes to break 18:30--not that it mattered, but it was a nice makeshift goal.  My bottle was now straight Coke, and the ice had rejuvenated me; I charged through the first couple of miles of twisty, muddy singletrack and hit the straight, rolling hills of the Power Line trail, just two miles from the finish, feeling strong.  A brief moment of panic thinking I had done the addition wrong gave way to relief when I crested the final hill and saw the clock reading 18:28, and my severely battered feet carried me over the line with my sub-18:30 and my top-10 intact.

Reunited at the finish.
This was an interesting one for sure.  I've suffered in races before, but I don't recall ever going into the depths like I did at this one and coming back with multiple strong sections in between.  Unlike Leadville, which had been a nearly-ideal experience, this race was fraught with problems: weather, footing, stomach, energy, etc.  It really did feel like one hurdle after another.  Jodi asked me afterwards if it was fun.  No, it definitely wasn't fun.  Even the good ones aren't really all that fun, certainly not in the immediate aftermath.  But it was gratifying.  They can't all go perfectly well.  In fact, in these long events, with so many variables, most of them won't go perfectly well--or even reasonably well.  Far from it.  But there is something empowering in knowing that you can survive--maybe even succeed--even when it seems like everything that can go wrong does.  This race wasn't really a success, but it wasn't a failure either.  It was a hard-fought finish, and a hard-fought top 10, and I'll move onto the rest of 2019 taking something positive away from that.

Salomon Sense Ultra and Agile shirt
Injinji Ultra No-show socks
Patagonia Stride Pro shorts
Orange Mud Single Barrel Hydraquiver
GU Roctane and gels
Orange Mud trucker cap 
Petzl Reactik + headlamp
And an off-brand Buff I got at Cayuga Trails a few years ago


Friday, January 4, 2019

Gear Review: Salomon Sonic RA Pro and S/Lab Ultra

I've branched out quite a bit in my shoe usage over the past couple of years.  I've been pretty loyal to inov-8 since discovering their shoes in 2008, and I still have several of them in my quiver.  The X-Talon 212 may be my second-favorite shoe of all time, after the old c. 1991 Nike Air Terra Zori.  (Does anyone remember those?  They were purple with yellow trim, lightweight, flexible, grippy...I had so many fun miles in those shoes.  I can't even find a picture of them on line.)  But in recent years I've expanded my arsenal to include some HOKAs (enjoying the Speedgoats), a couple of Nikes (the Wildhorse for trails and the Zoom Fly for speed work), and some other random stuff from Scott and Newton.  By far my biggest change came in 2018 when the MPF/RNR team partnered with Salomon and I was able to try out some of their high performance shoes.

Previously I had not enjoyed some of my forays into the Salomon line.  I liked the Sense Mantra OK, and had a brief flirtation with the Sense Ride (I think), but found many of their other offerings, like the XA Pro and the Wings Pro, to be very stiff and unresponsive.  Plus I find their naming system to be incredibly confusing.  So I was a bit apprehensive when this partnership was announced.  Fortunately mears fears were unfounded.  I've fallen in love with two different models this year and wound up turning in the majority of my 2018 miles in Salomons. 

My Sonic RA Pros after their muddy maiden voyage
First up: the Sonic RA Pro.  This is billed as a road shoe, and it definitely fits that bill.  I come from a road background, though, and I still do a fair bit of road running: probably once a week tempo or marathon-paced running on roads, plus a few miles at the beginning and end of some runs getting to the trailhead from my house.  Additionally, most of my "trail" runs are actually carriage roads, where footing is generally excellent.  I have some very light, very grippy, very responsive shoes that I'll wear if I know I'm heading for a technically demanding route.  In general, when I'm looking for a workhorse training shoe, I want something that can handle a bit of road and a lot mostly non-technical trails, which means I'm willing to sacrifice traction and, to a certain extent, weight, in exchange for cushioning and versatility.  The one thing I can't abide is stiffness.  Even in a road shoe, I need a responsive ride.  The Sonic RA Pro checks all of those boxes.  At 235g (8.3 ounces), they're light and responsive, but there's enough cushion for a longish run; I took them for multiple 20+ mile runs without feeling beaten up afterwards.  The 6mm heel-toe drop is about the limit of how low I can go without really bothering my Achilles.  They transitioned from road to trail with ease, and I was able to use them on some of the exposed rock slabs in the Gunks without feeling unstable.  The toe box was extremely accommodating of my wide forefoot, but the Sensifit system provided a snug fit that hugged the midfoot extremely well, and I did not appreciate any slipping or sliding in the forefoot as a result, despite, the extra roominess.  The upper was light and breathable.  Not an awesome shoe for mud--the blown rubber outsole slides around too much, and the upper doesn't do much to keep mud or moisture out.  But the shoe scored high marks for responsiveness and versatility, and I wore them for the Salomon OutdoorFest 6-hour in June with no complaints.

As I geared up for Leadville, however, I knew I'd need a shoe with a little more heel-toe differential to protect my Achilles over 100 miles, and I definitely wanted a little more cushioning than the Sonic RA Pro could provide.  I considered using the inov-8 Roclite 280s, which I'd used at Bandera in 2016, or the Race Ultra 290s, which I'd used at Rocky Raccoon in 2017.  But the Race Ultras had been feeling a bit clunky recently, and so after OutdoorFest I started putting in miles in the S/Lab Ultra.  I think it took two runs for me to be certain that these were my shoes for Leadville.

My trusty S/Lab Ultras in action at Leadville
photo: Joe Azze
The S/Lab Ultra is also known as "the Francois shoe" as it was developed with multiple-time UTMB champ Francois D'haene.  I'm not sure if I can adequately describe how much I love this shoe.  It weighs 300g (10.5 ounces) but feels lighter.  It rides low to the ground (26mm stack height in the heel) but yet feels cushioned.  It's grippy but not overly aggressive; flexible but not too soft.  The 8mm drop is right in my sweet spot.  Like the Sonic RA Pro, it has Salomon's Sensifit technology for a wonderfully comfortable grip in the upper, which has a bit more overlay than the former shoe but stops short of being too hot or restrictive.  I'd probably prefer regular laces to the Quicklace system, which I find can be difficult to tighten enough for really slippery conditions, but it does prevent the dreaded "lace bite," and I did appreciate the easy on/off when I changed my socks at mile 61 of Leadville.  I'd love to find something negative to say about these shoes, but I can't.  I even like the color.  They're coming with me to Rocky Raccoon next month, and I know my feet will be in good hands.

But I still hate the naming system.

Guest Post: Stewart Dutfield's Final Thoughts of 2018

17 July. We took an anniversary bike ride down the river to Hudson, over Mount Merino and the Rip Van Winkle bridge to Catskill, and back on the other side of the river. Most of the roads we followed date back 200 years or more, but we returned abruptly to the present, riding amidst fast-moving heavy trucks by the Port of Coeymans. This former brickyard has become a deep water port, supplying raw materials to the neighbouring cement plant and constructing portions of the recently-opened new Tappan Zee bridge.

29 July. In July 1977, 22 runners set out on the first Escarpment Trail Run: 30Km along a wooded ridge, high above the Hudson River to the east, with three major climbs and no road crossings. Everyone learned something about this new venture, whether "never again" or the need to carry water next year. This was a good year for the archive, with frequent participants earning T-shirts for having completed 400 and 500 miles in the race over the years. There are runners who resolutely spurn the offer of a T-shirt for just one more completion, while others believe that this will be their last hurrah and have just fun enough to weaken their resolution.

More than 1,200 miles between the two of them
17 August. A creation myth of Thousand Island salad dressing holds that it originated on Grindstone Island, where fishing guides grilled the day's catch for their clients during the Gilded Age. Each summer I camp overnight with my son at Canoe Point; in the late 19th century the American Canoe Association held its annual camp and regatta here, and since then the island has changed little except that the ATV has supplanted the horse-drawn cart for getting around. Today I paddled to Canoe Point, and set off to run around the island: past farms and preserved lands, two one-room schoolhouses, the defunct cheese factory, a red truck with a tree growing through it—totem of rural America—and a field of Highland cattle, eventually to the Grindstone Island Winery and, with as many bottles as I could carry, back to the kayak.
Old road, supposedly closed but presumably only to ATVs

Canoe Point, 1885
10 September. How lovely to live in a community that values its open spaces and plans for their conservation amidst growing pressure for development. I used one of the planning maps to visit as many recreation areas and preserves as I could by bicycle, pausing at a trailhead or park entrance for every three miles or so of the 50-mile ride around town. 

27 September. Steve Chilton's "The Round" describes Chris Brasher's unsuccessful attempt at the Bob Graham round, his entourage joined at the start by a runner named Charlie. After 25 miles, Joss Naylor left the group in order to travel to London for dinner with Muhammad Ali. Brasher retired after another 16 miles or so, but Charlie ran on and finished the route in 22 hours, having told his wife the previous evening that he would be out for just an hour. This was before cellphones, but why she didn't call mountain rescue is not made clear.

View from the Wittenberg over the plain of Shokan
29 September. My head filled with stories of running 42 Lake District peaks, I started an eight-hour run of the Cat’s Tail marathon wondering how a mere four major Catskill summits would compare. The route scrambles along the ridge from Slide Mountain, almost a thousand feet higher than Scafell Pike: a classic Catskill trail, amidst the smell of balsam fir, over Cornell and Wittenberg Mountains. Joe reminded me, as we ran, that John Burroughs' 1885 "The Heart of the Southern Catskills" describes camping rough on the summit of "the Wittenberg"; from here is perhaps the best view from the ridge, over "the plain of Shokan": now the Ashokan Reservoir that gives water to New York City more than a hundred miles away.

5 October
. In the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald's holding "opposing ideas in mind at the same time", I read two contrasting books and emerged struck by their similar views of society's increasing dependence on large corporations. In The Company Citizen, Tom Levitt offers practical ways to align corporate self-interest with positive social outcomes. Peter Dauvergne's "Will Big Business Destroy Our Planet?" sees corporations as willing for selfish reasons to lie, degrade the environment, and break the law. Both books are optimistic: one that corporate interests can be aligned with human values, the other that this will never reliably happen but activism and regulation will save the day once a great deal more damage has been done. Any political fuss aside, at issue seems simply whether corporate inputs—mission and purpose—are adequate to embody human values: or must we also insist on assessing the full cost of business activity and requiring corporations to compensate for any net negative effects? And if we must insist, will we do so strongly enough before it is too late?

13 October. I left hours before dawn for the Trapp Family Lodge, an Austrian-flavoured outdoor resort started as a music camp established in Vermont's Green Mountains by the "Sound of Music" family. The marathon consists of two loops on hiking and mountain bike trails. At the finish was Viennese lager, brewed on the premises. Fortunately, no alphorn were in evidence.

25 October. Cycling to work, I encountered the remains of a deer on the rail trail. I imagined a jurisdictional battle between the County and the Town Departments of Public Works, but whichever drew the short straw had the eviscerated mess cleaned up by the afternoon.

28 October. Don Ritchie's autobiography "The Stubborn Scotsman" describes his struggle with health problems, which it is tempting to associate with his many hard years of training and racing. Current research into long-term health effects of endurance sports may one day yield more reliable guidance. Meanwhile, my son's painful knee has been diagnosed as "fast-growing boy" syndrome; he has been learning to do physiotherapy exercises and about the sports and level of involvement that bring him joy. Today's delight in his new mountain bike suggests that this is an activity that might keep him happy and healthy throughout his life: something that I have been fortunate to derive from running.

4 November. The Batona trail travels the length of the Pine Barrens: a forest wilderness of blueberry and cranberry bogs and deserted villages, quite apart from the rest of New Jersey. A low-key run along the trail, started in winter a few years ago, now takes place amidst muted late autumn colours. At 43 miles, with the next aid station several hours of running away, refreshments included a nip of Lagavulin which I can almost still taste. The following morning at Batsto village, Joe was delighted to find a pile of bog iron left over from the smelting that took place from the mid 1700s to the mid 1800s.

11 November. When Siegfried Sassoon wrote that "Everybody burst out singing...the singing will never be done.", did he have in mind the soldiers of his Welsh regiment or the general popular celebration of the signing of the Armistice? Perhaps both. I experienced neither the horror nor the delight that it was over, but for fifty years have wondered what being thrown into it all would have been like. What comfort in a humanity that can condone Verdun, Ypres, the Somme, Gallipoli or the Eastern Front? As the singing surely did end, the horror drifted back to haunt generations to follow.

17 November. Gravel Grinding, a term for cycling over dirt roads, has arrived in the Northeastern US. We returned from the "Gravel Gobbler" to the S&S Farm Brewery covered in mud, and with fewer working gears than when we we started. We look forward to more.

30 November. Rereading Will Hutton's 1995 The State We're In during the buildup to the postponed UK Parliamentary Brexit vote, I found this:
Unless Western Capitalism...can accept that they have responsibilities to the social and political world in which they are embedded, they are headed for perdition. Paradoxically, the most likely consequences will be the closure of the very open markets that business most needs as societies seek to protect themselves from the destructive forces that unregulated capital can release...
Alas, our pragmatic management of the social impacts of globalisation has failed to prevent "that kind of breakdown", which now draws so many countries toward a populism of fear and exclusion.

12 December. What we now refer to as the Christmas Truce came early for some; in a book of World War 1 letters a 20-year-old describes from his "palace in the trenches" a case on December 12th. Under a white flag and led by an officer, Germans crossed no man's land to shake hands and smoke cigarettes with the French. The letter's author was killed a few months later.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Ultrarunner of the Year: My Ballot

Hopefully unanimous women's #1, Courtney Dauwalter
For the fourth year in a row I had the great honor and terrible luck to be given a ballot for Ultrarunning Magazine's prestigious Ultrarunner of the Year award.  As I did in 2016 and 2017, I'll share my picks below, but not before complaining about how awful the process of filling out the ballot is.  There are literally dozens of runners who deserve consideration for this award, and I invariably have a list of about twenty athletes on both the men's and the women's side who absolutely should be in the top 10--an impossible task.  I take the responsibility very seriously and therefore I agonize over every decision, and while it's fun in the abstract, the actual process becomes painful on a nearly physical level by the time I'm done.

My women's worksheet, version 2.
I continue to invite criticism by posting my ballot.  I'm not quite sure why I do this, other than that it's easy content creation.  I do enjoy debating the picks and hearing people's rationales for arguments for and against various decisions.  As with anything online it can get a little personal or angry, but for the most part people have been good-natured and civil about it.  Please continue to do so.  The debate is the fun part, but only if we respect each other's opinions.  Our sport covers a variety of distances, surfaces, and formats, and while these awards smush all of them together, we all value different things and have our own prejudices and biases.

Last year, I was supposed to have Jason Mintz come on the podcast to enact one of these debates in more or less real time.  A scheduling conflict prevented him from doing the show, but he forwarded his ballot to Laura Kline, who came on the show to argue Mintz's picks.  This year the original @veganultrarunner1 was able to come on the show and speak for himself.  Check it out, we had a lot of fun doing it.  I'll leave most of the details on our decision-making to the podcast and stick with just the basics here.  Since Mintz and I recorded last week, about a week before the ballot was due, I did make a few modifications to my final picks based on our conversation.

Women's UROY
1. Courtney Dauwalter
2. Kelly Wolf
3. Hillary Gerardi
4. Katylyn Gerbin
5. Keely Henninger
6. Sarah Bard
7. Amanda Basham
8. Brittany Peterson
9. Corrine Malcolm
10. Darcy Piceu

Courtney was the easiest #1 pick since Jim in 2016.  Kelly also seemed like a fairly easy #2 for me; after that it got significantly harder. I bumped Clare Gallagher for Darcy at the last minute; Mintz and I discussed that one at length.  Toughest omissions: Clare Gallagher, Katie Schide, Camille Herron, Megan Alvarado, Rory Bosio, Stephanie Howe Violett, Aliza Lapierre, Kaci Lickteig, Sabrina Little, Sabrina Stanley, and Taylor Nowlin.

Women's Performance of the Year
1. Camille Herron's 24-hour WR at Desert Solstice
2. Courtney at Big's Backyard
3. Courtney at Western States
4. Megan Alvarado, 146 mile 24 hour at Fast Track (#9 all-time US)
5. Sarah Bard, 8th at Comrades

For once, I found this category to be pretty easy.  Tough omissions were Kelly Wolf winning Lavaredo, Julie Hamulecki's Canadian record at the 100K World Championships, Magdalena Boulet winning Marathon des Sables, and Courtney at the Tahoe 200 (not really, I don't care that much about 200s).

Women's Age Group Performance of the Year
1. Diana Fitzpatrick (60 years old), an age-group record 23:52(!!) at Western States
2. Paula Chapman (63), 20:58 (!) at Kansas Fall (women's winner)
3. Claudia Newsome (67), 26:27 at the Jackpot 100 (fourth female)
4. Connie Gardner (55), 16:40 at Canal Corridor (women's winner)
5. Megan Laws (56), 8:40 at Lake Sonoma (10th female)

Men's UROY
1. Dylan Bowman
2. Jeff Browning
3. Jim Walmsley
4. Mark Hammond
5. Mario Mendoza
6. Cody Reed
7. Jason Schlarb
8. Rob Krar
9. Kyle Pietari
10. Jared Hazen

As usual, this was the worst, and made much more difficult by the carnage at UTMB, the cancellation of North Face, and the subsequently thin resumes of many of the top contendors.  Again, listen to the podcast for most of my reasoning.  My toughest cuts in this category: Zach Miller, Zach Bitter, Tim Tollefson, Hayden Hawks, Kris Brown, Brian Rusiecki, Olivier Leblond, Ryan Ghelfi, Cody Lind, David Sinclair, and Jim Sweeney.

Men's Performance of the Year
1. Jim Walmsley's CR at Western States
2. Zach Bitter's 12:08 at Tunnel Hill
3. Rob Krar's "comeback" win and near-CR at Leadville
4. Jared Hazen's 5:34 win at JFK
5. Morgan Elliot's CR at Mount Mitchell

I thought I had this list nailed, and then Rich Heffron pointed out that I missed Geoff Burns' fifth-place finish at the 100K World Championships.  He's right; my bad.  I should've had that in the top five, though I dis want to recognize Morgan's Mount Mitchell CR, which he absolutely obliterated on a historic course.  (I know, it should be "an historic course," but that's the one rule of grammar I absolutely refuse to follow.)  Toughest snubs: Jim's CR at Lake Sonoma, Hayden Hawks' win at Lavaredo, Olivier Leblond's 161-mile national championship win at North Coast 24, andJim Sweeney's solo 13:09 at the Hennepin Hundred.

Men's Age Group Performance of the Year
1. Bob Hearn (53 years old), 153.84 miles at Desert Solstice (and a likely spot on the US team)
2. Thomas Dever (61), 3:39 at Tallahassee Distance Classic (winner)
3. Jean Pommier (54), 6:20 at Ruth Anderson 50 (winner)
4. Ruperto Romero (54), 8:14 at Sean O'Brien (winner)
5. Hans Schmid (78), 8:07 at Quad Dipsea

Monday, September 17, 2018

Race Report: Leadville Trail 100

I don't want to say that Leadville was the culmination of my years as an ultra runner, partly because I think I can run it faster and partly because that sounds kind of final and I'd like to think that I still have a few good races left in me.  But it certainly feels like an apex of sorts, and I think marked the beginning of a new phase of my running career.  Ultrarunning may have been an inevitable destination for me; at every stage of my life as a runner, I've always gravitated towards, and found the most success at, the longer distances.  But the move to the 100-mile distance was by no means a given.  I can still remember, having already completed multiple 50Ks, telling a friend that he was crazy for running the 40-mile Mount Mitchell Challenge (a race I've since run three times).  Mike Siudy still reminds me frequently that I swore I'd never run 100 miles.  And even once I had decided that a 100 was probably in my future, the idea of running Leadville--one of the original Grand Slam 100s, with nearly 16,000 feet of climbing at an elevation between 9,200 and 12,600 feet above sea level--seemed ludicrous.  (I can recall thinking that Leadville finisher Ken Posner was insane...though I still think that's true about anyone who voluntarily runs Badwater, let alone a double.)  Having completed, with some modicum of success, a race that previously scared the crap out of me does remove some sort of self-imposed limitation that may have constrained me in the past.  There are still going to be races I have no interest in doing, but the idea of a mountain 100 is no longer a daunting, impossible prospect.

I flew into Denver nine days before the race and caught a ride out to Leadville with Josh Sprague, the owner of Orange Mud, one of my wonderful sponsors, who was attempting to complete the Leadman (all of the Leadville Race Series MTB and running races in the same summer).  I was in for a bit of a shock.  While I knew I wouldn't have any hope of sticking with most of the high-country natives in a running race, I had been fairly diligent about my acclimatization, and I certainly did not expect to be short of breath climbing the single flight of stairs in the house I'd rented.  Alas, such is life at 10,150 feet.

I spent Friday, my first full day in town, helping Josh and a bunch of other OM athletes at the expo for the 100-mile MTB race that would take place the next day.  I headed out for a shakeout hourlong jog that evening before dinner to get my bearings and see how much the altitude was really going to affect me.  The answer: quite a bit!  I ran a 7-mile section of the Mineral Belt Trail, a paved bike loop around town that passes many of the abandoned silver mines from Leadville's 19th-century heyday.  I soon realized that it would be very tough to run under 9-10 minutes/mile on even gentle uphill grades.  Flat stretches seemed generally OK, though, once I got used to the sensation of breathing much more rapidly, and taking more frequent deep breaths, than at sea level.

Saturday was mountain bike race day; I took Josh's truck out to Twin Lakes, the main aid station and crew access at the 40- and 60-mile marks of the out-and-back course.  I'd never crewed a bike race before, so I took my cues from fellow OM athlete Kristen King, who was supporting her husband Jesse.  The crew station was a very cool scene, like an ultra aid station on steroids.  There were dozens of pop-up tents set up on either side of the dirt road spanning the Twin Lake dam that the riders would traverse.  With 1500 racers coming through at 20-30 mph, it was a madhouse trying to pick an individual rider out of the crowd.  Somehow it worked, though, and the racers managed to find their crews, fix mechanical issues, take care of their nutritional needs, and everything else familiar to a regular ultra race.  Watching the leaders blast through in either direction was impressive; they did not stop at all, and seemed to maintain an insane pace and effort level throughout the day.

After seeing Josh and Jesse successfully through, I drove a few miles into the town of Twin Lakes (such as it is), where the run course would pass through a week later (the bike and run courses share similar trails, but parallel each other for long stretches, and the major climbs are quite different).  As it turns out, I parked the car in basically the exact spot where my crew would set up their Hypoxico tent one week later and undertook a reconnaissance run/hike of Hope Pass, the biggest climb in the race.  This section starts at about mile 39 at Twin Lakes and traverses a flat field for about a mile, crossing the Roaring Fork River at the low point of the course (9200') and then embarking a a 4-mile climb to the top of Hope Pass (12,600').  The race drops down the far side of the climb and continues about five miles to the turnaround point at Winfield, but I scouted only the initial climb on the north slope.  With my collapsable trekking poles I actually found the climb to be fairly reasonable, and was able to maintain about an 18:00 pace despite not pushing very hard on the way up.  The descent started off a bit technical, but after I got back below the treeline I found it to be very runnable and enjoyed it thoroughly.  In all I round-tripped the 10+ miles in a bit under three hours and felt really good about it; a huge confidence boost for the following week.

That confidence mostly vanished the following day when, with Brian's encouragement, I decided to jump into the Leadville 10K, which would give me a taste of the first and last 5K of the full course.  The first three miles were a barely interrupted downhill on mostly wide dirt roads; I struggled to keep my breathing under control and hung on to the back of the top 10, hitting the turnaround in about 20 minutes flat.  The return was pure, lung-searing torture;  I staggered home with a second half of 24:30 for a 16th-place finish in 44:55--somehow under my goal of 45:00, but severely shaken at how hard the uphill had been.  I was cheered a bit by the realization that Brian's time in 2013 had been only a few seconds faster, when he had gone on to run 22 hours for the 100; if I could pull that off, I'd be pretty pleased.

The girls! (I like trains.)
I did very minimal running the rest of the week.  Jodi, the girls, and my parents arrived late Tuesday night, along with Brian's girlfriend Kali.  We spent Wednesday morning on a very low-key whitewater rafting trip on the Arkansas River, and the afternoon on a scenic ride on the historic Leadville, Colorado, and Southern Railroad (which I enjoyed immensely).  Brian and his sister Katie arrived Thursday afternoon, just in time for Brian to place second in the Leadville Beer Mile (while dressed as a squirrel) in a very impressive high-altitude 8:25.  Friday was very low-key; I spent most of the morning hanging out with Brian and Dylan at the Hypoxico tent, and spent the afternoon readying gear and putting the crew plan together with Brian, Kali, Katie, and Kevin, who joined us that evening after some business meetings in Denver.  At this point we had ten people crammed into our very cozy rental, trying to grab a few hours of sleep before the 4am start.
At race check-in, with LT100 founder Ken Chlouber

I actually slept fairly well and felt good as we walked the 3/4 mile from our house to the starting line; I was a little nervous but mostly excited and chomping at the bit to get started.  I had a stated goal of 20 hours, but in reality this was mostly a pipe dream, and I knew even with a great day and great weather this was unlikely.  I mostly wanted to just make sure not to do anything stupid and be able to run strong over the latter stages of the race.  I knew the opening miles would be fast and I'd have to keep myself under control.  I was hoping to reach Outward Bound (23.5 miles, the first time I'd see my crew) in about 4 hours, to reach Twin Lakes (39-ish miles) in under 7 hours, at to reach Winfield in under 10 hours.  A 20-hour day would actually take about a 9:30 split into Winfield, which I thought was possible given how well I had climbed Hope Pass the week before, but more than chasing a specific split, I was determined not to burn myself out too early.  The benefits of a controlled start are pretty obvious, and any successful ultra I've had has always come as a result of starting out slower than I think I should, but the best of intentions are often waylaid in the heat of a race, especially a long one where the opening miles feel much easier than expected.  Only a few days before, though, I'd read a nice article from David Roche about starting races slowly.  It wasn't anything earth-shattering (though it was well-written and spot-on, as all of Dave's articles are), but it had come along at exactly the right time for me to be reminded about the benefits of a nice, easy start, and as we headed down those fast pre-dawn miles, I kept my pace well in check.

It was dark, but there were so many runners around me that I didn't even need to turn on my headlamp.  We reached the bottom of the initial drop and traversed a nice flat 1.5 miles or so of pavement before we reached the rolling singletrack that circled the north and west shores of Turquoise Lake.  I tucked myself in the middle of a single-file line of seven or eight runners, running a very relaxed pace, but after awhile I got tired of hearing one of them talk loudly about himself to anyone who would listen  and took off, settling onto the back of a pack of much quieter runners as we reached May Queen, the first aid station at 12.5 miles, in about 2:05.  It was still nice and cool, and I was feeling very comfortable with a full bottle and several gels in my OM Single Barrel Hydraquiver, so I ran straight through the aid station and the thick, accompanying crowds and headed towards the first major climb of the day.

Arriving at Outward Bound, 24 miles in.
photo: Joe Azze
After a few gradually uphill miles through some tricky singletrack, we popped out on a dirt road and began a steady uphill grind to Sugarloaf Pass, a little over 11,000 feet.  I picked up a few spots, but not many.  I was determined not to race this early, and used my breathing as a proxy for effort; anytime I felt my breathing pattern increase, I eased off the pace.  After cresting the hill the course dropped precipitously over the next several miles down what would be known as the Powerline climb on the return trip; I focused on trying not to trash my legs and just get down with minimal effort.  At the bottom of the climb we turned onto a rolling rural highway for a two-mile stretch to the Outward Bound aid station.  I suffered my first mild down period on this section, moving steadily but slowly, and feeling as if a faster past was well beyond my capabilities.  But seeing my crew at the aid station, along with Elizabeth Azze (there to crew a client), and my parents, lifted my spirits, as did the fact that I had exactly met my target split of four hours (I mean exactly--like, to the minute).  Brian and Katie fueled me up with GU and Coke, and after about half a mile of easy jogging I started feeling good and found a nice rhythm over the next several flat/gently uphill miles.

Enjoying a bit of rain.
photo: Leadville Race Series
I fueled well and ran well over the next few hours, moving quickly through aid stations, listening to music, enjoying the scenery, and just letting the miles pass.  I had been dreading the climb on the lower slopes of Mount Elbert but I didn't even notice it.  I traded places with a few other runners but did not worry about it at all, just monitoring my effort level and cruising along.  A steady rain started, but as I was about to start getting too wet to stay comfortable, the rain stopped, the sun came out, and I dried off immediately.  Before I knew it I was descending from Mount Elbert towards Twin Lakes and my main crew station.  Again on the descent, I suffered a bit of a bad patch; this would become a theme most of the day, as my climbs were insanely strong all day long but I struggled to find a good rhythm on the downhills.  But once again I was re-energized by my amazing crew.  Katie swapped out my hat and pack (I wanted a little extra carrying capacity and fluids for the Hope Pass section); I pounded a full can of Coke and a couple of GU Roctane gels, grabbed my poles, and headed off toward the pass.

Heading towards Hope Pass
photo: Joe Azze
I crossed the river and started the climb, falling into a strong power hike, and I immediately started passing people.  And I mean, passing them like they were standing still.  I was trying not to get too fired up, but it was hard to keep the emotions and the pace under control, feeling this strong and having this much positive feedback.  The climb seemed to pass in an instant and I reached the aid station, located about half a mile from the summit.  The enthusiastic volunteers refilled my bottles as I kept hiking, then ran them back out to me; I never broke stride, just smiled at the llamas grazing on the mountainside slopes (so that's how they got supplies up here! Llama train!) and pressed on to the top.  Less than five minutes down the far side, I passed Rob Krar, the race leader, already nearing the top on the return trip, hiking purposefully, without a pacer and with about a 20-minute lead.
Crossing the Roaring Fork
photo: Leadville Race Series

The descent was much steeper than the northern side, and I picked my way down slowly, surrendering a spot or two, but I felt generally OK as I neared the halfway mark.  However, I hit a real down period on the three-mile rolling trail that stretched from the bottom of the descent to the turnaround at the Winfield aid station.  This section was much longer than I had anticipated, and my energy levels dipped precipitously.  I ate a gel, but it wasn't enough, and when I reached Brian at halfway I may have been at my lowest point all day.  Still, though, I was in good shape, exactly 10 hours in; I had moved up about 15 places since leaving Twin Lakes, and 21 hours was still a possibility.  I sat for the first time all day, eating some noodle soup, bananas, and Coke.  After a few minutes we made our way back out on the trail.  It took a few minutes of walking for me to get my legs back under me, but once the calories kicked in I started moving pretty well again, and we picked up a couple more folks as we approached the return climb.
Return climb on Hope Pass
photo: Brian Oestrike

Once we hit the climb I locked in my poles again and started hiking like a madman.  We caught three people in the first few minutes and I was not about to slow down.  Fortunately Brian recognized that the effort was not sustainable.  He gently took the lead and slowed the pace down enough for my breathing and heart rate to get back under control.  We were still making up ground, but at a much more manageable rate.  I flagged a bit as we neared the top and the climbing got very steep, but we had picked up another seven spots by the time we reached the top.  I jogged the first several minutes from the summit very cautiously before settling into a better rhythm just beyond the aid station.  The upper slopes were not particularly enjoyable, and I surrendered a few spots here.  But in the last two miles of the descent I hit my stride (despite one rather loud and unpleasant fall, which miraculously did not result in any injuries) and arrived back at Twin Lakes tired but happy that Hope Pass was behind me for the day.  Here I took the longest break of the day, sitting in a chair while Kevin dried my feet and changed my socks (thanks buddy, sorry to put you through that) and crushing a PBJ and more Coke.  By the time Brian and I headed back on the trail I was feeling pretty good again with just over 40 miles to go.

Kali has a frightening encounter with the Pacer Squirrel.
photo: Katie Oestrike
I was once again probably overly aggressive on the climb up to the Mount Elbert aid station, passing several folks and getting myself into a bit of an energy deficit that I paid for a few miles later.  Brian was able to do a nice job of steadying my effort level and getting the pace to be much more consistent over the next several miles.  I went through another down patch from miles 68 to about 74, but my spirits were revived by my crew at a brief stop at the Tree Line aid station, when Kevin burst out of the woods in full squirrel gear.  Brian and I covered the last few miles back to Outward Bound (mile 77) at a nice clip, recovering a couple of spots, and I was happy to have the whole crew, including my parents, Jodi, and the girls, meet me there.  After changing into a long sleeve shirt and powering on my headlamp, I started the next section with Kali along as pacer #2.

We ran very comfortably on the road section for a couple of miles but unfortunately missed the turn (along with a few other runners) off the road and added on about 3/4 of a mile with that mistake.  However once we found the trail and started the Powerline climb I was moving well again.  Having been warned by Brian, Kali kept me in check, and for once I didn't give back any spots on the way down, in fact picking up another place or two in the last mile before reaching May Queen, slightly more than 12 miles to go.

I had left Outward Bound with what I thought was an outside chance to break 22 hours, but our missed turn, which had cost us probably ten minutes, had wiped that out.  As I left May Queen with Kevin, my last pacer, I needed to run the last 12.5 miles in under 3 hours to break 23:00.  This was not a guarantee; I remembered all too well the final 3 miles of the 10K the week before, which climbed almost 500 feet--not an insurmountable grade, but one that I though likely would reduce me to a walk at this stage.  Twenty-minute miles were not out of the question.  I figured I needed to reach the base of the climb with an hour to spare in order for a sub-23 to be relatively safe.

I got quite cold leaving May Queen, and Kevin and I took a few minutes to get going while I put on my winter beanie and my Patagonia Houdini jacket.  A few minutes later it started to rain, and it rained fairly hard for the next ten minutes or so.  We covered the first few miles at 13-minute pace, walking in a few spots, but I started to find my rhythm on the north side of the lake and settled into the 12:00/mile range.  Kevin was very aggressive about pushing my calories and fluids, making sure I didn't neglect any needs, and as we hit the road section leading from the lake to the climb I actually felt very strong, pushing the pace down near 10:00/mile.  We hiked the first minute or so of the uphill, strewn with ruts and loose rock, but as we reached the graded dirt road, the slope eased off, and I found maintaining an 11:00/mile jog was pretty easy.  We walked for about 4-5 minutes with about two miles to go, partly to ensure we'd finish strong and I think partly to savor the moment.  Before I knew it we were back on 6th street in Leadville, with the finish line stretched out before us in the distance.

Jodi and my dad were at the finish, along with Katie, Brian, and Kali (the kids were mercifully asleep back at the house with my mom).  I was struck in that moment at how far they had all come and what they had sacrificed to get me to this point, and I broke down in the medical tent afterwards, overwhelmed by gratitude and so happy to have them all there with me.  Safe to say this experience will stay with me for quite some time.  The race was incredible: the organization, the trail, the scenery, the competition, and the time I was able to share with my family and friends out on this course.  Leadville truly is one of the greatest US trail races, and I hope to be back many times again.

Salomon Sense Ultra and Agile shirt
Injinji Ultra No-show socks
Patagonia Stride Pro shorts
Black Diamond Distance Z trekking poles
Orange Mud Single Barrel Hydraquiver, miles 0-40 and 60-100 (also used an old-school Ultimate Direction AK vest for Hope Pass)
GU Roctane and gels, mostly Birthday Cake, that's just delicious
Orange Mud trucker cap and beanie (also used my GU five panel crusher for Hope Pass)
Petzl Reactik + headlamp