Monday, September 15, 2014

Leadville 100 Race Report (Part II)

This is Part II of my Leadville 100 Race Report. Here's Part I.

Hope Pass to Winfield

I didn't have any ambitious goals for this split. My hand-wavy plan was to run it a few minutes slower than last year. Of course, once my knee started hurting going down Powerlines it threw all of my plans for downhill splits into doubt. I didn't know what to expect, but I wasn't optimistic.

The long descent to Winfield would be the third major test for my knee. As I crested Hope Pass, and gingerly started negotiating the trail down the backside, the first thing I felt was a sudden wave of nausea. Whoa. It came out of nowhere and, luckily, it was gone almost as quickly as it came. What was that all about? I had just slurped down a cup of potatoes and soup at Hopeless, so maybe that played a factor? I don't know. I popped two antacids, and thankfully it disappeared after a minute or so. And my knee? I couldn't feel anything! The ibuprofen that I had taken before the descent into Twin Lakes must have been working its magic. With each passing switchback, I kept waiting for some soreness to surface, but no... nothing! Ah, the wonders of modern medicine.

It was definitely sunny and a bit toasty on the south side of Hope Pass. I was thankful that I had spent so much time in the sauna in the preceding two weeks. Just like I had on the north side, I stopped at every stream crossing and drank extra water, splashing more water on my head to try to stay cool. I continued to try to balance my water intake with my energy drink intake, trying to make sure that the contents of my stomach didn't get too concentrated. I was moving pretty well, conservatively on the steep stuff, but still jogging the flatter sections. I was still drinking my energy drink, getting plenty of calories. And, I was in relatively good spirits, cracking jokes occasionally, and cheering on all the runners that I knew who were headed in the opposite direction.

Then, just as I started descending down to Clear Creek Road off of the Colorado Trail, I felt another sudden wave of nausea. This time it was too much, and I doubled over and threw up. A mixture of water and energy drink came up-- probably everything I had consumed in the last 20 minutes or so.

Damn it.

I only made it to mile 49.5 before vomiting. I was hoping for at least mile 60. Last year I made it to mile 51. (Yup, I keep track of these things.) In retrospect, even though I puked 1.5 miles before I puked last year, I probably puked at almost exactly the same time. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not...

I tried to shake it off as I slowly jogged into Winfield. Physically, I felt okay. The nausea quickly subsided. But, mentally... I was demoralized. Confused.

I didn't get it. What had gone wrong? I had executed my nutrition plan just as I had hoped to, but it hadn't worked...

My theory was that I hadn't been drinking enough water last year, and I was confident that I was doing a much better job with that this year. I'm certain that's why I felt so great while I was climbing up Hope Pass. But, my stomach ultimately succumbed.

My plan had failed.

Yet, I was just about to complete my fastest Hope Pass split ever: 3:21. I rolled into Winfield at the 10:51 mark, exactly 15 minutes behind my time from last year. I nailed the split from the top of Hope Pass, coming in 1 minute faster than planned. Amazing.

Only 15 minutes behind? I couldn't believe it. I was happy, but also shaken up...

What the hell was going on with my stomach?

And how long would my knee last?

Winfield to Twin Lakes

I met Jeremy just outside of Winfield. He had biked in from where he had parked the car alongside the road. The aid station was much less chaotic than last year. Not having to dodge cars on the short stretch of dusty road was a welcome change-- at least for runners. I weighed in at almost exactly my starting weight. Maybe even a little over-- I can't remember. Definitely within the margin of error. So, my hydration seemed good. I grabbed some broth, some Coke, some watermelon, some nut butters, two bottles of energy drink, and a PB&J sandwich.

Even though Jeremy had brought extra supplies for my knee (as requested in Twin Lakes), I didn't want to mess with it since it hadn't bothered me on the downhill. I was still wearing my knee warmer and an IT band strap-- probably overkill at this point. I took some time to finish half the sandwich, some broth, a few swigs of Coke, and a bit of the melon before setting off again. It wasn't a super quick aid station stop, but it was reasonably efficient. Maybe 5 minutes?

Leaving Winfield, I was doing a few things differently this year: no pacer and no poles. In hindsight, I don't think either of those decisions was necessarily a bad one-- at least for this split.

But, now I started making decisions that I question in hindsight.

Of course, it's easy to question things in hindsight, but as I look back, I'm not sure what I was thinking. Certainly, vomiting up all that energy drink made it hard for me to continue to consume it. Having an alternative flavor to switch to probably would've helped. I was rattled that I hadn't been able to stave off nausea much longer than last year. Up until this point, the nausea had been coming in waves-- it wasn't continuous, but it was throwing me off of my game. I knew I had no chance at a PR unless I was able to control my stomach. I certainly wasn't in better shape than I was last year, so I couldn't count on making up any time that way. I was also nursing a knee injury. I guess I thought I had to try something different.

So, consciously or unconsciously, I decided to try real food for a while. Mistake? Yeah... probably.

I've resorted to real food in many races in the past and it's never really been successful, so I'm not sure what I expected to happen. The thought of more maltodextrin just wasn't appetizing.

As I hiked back up to the CDT, I contemplated my fate. I wasn't depressed. Confused might be the best adjective I can think of. I ran into more of my friends along way, cheering them on. I was happy to see Craig, a local friend and personal running hero. We ran Smokey's snowshoe marathon together way back in February. (God, that seems like forever ago.) He was suffering from back pain. He almost hadn't started the race. Since I was basically a walking medicine cabinet, I offered him a variety of painkillers. He declined, he was already set. (Sadly, I found out later that he dropped out at Half Pipe.)

Right before I hit the junction with the Sheep Gulch trail, I sat down and finished the second half of my PB&J sandwich. That's the problem with real food. It's really hard for me to chew late in a race. I got it down, but it must have taken me 5 minutes. Ok, another 150 calories...

Time for some more uphill!

I actually felt pretty good going up the south side of Hope Pass. I certainly wasn't woozy and in a weakened state like I was last year. The problem was that I stopped one or two more times to eat some more real food. This time it was a nut butter. Another 200 calories. The south side of Hope Pass is never easy, but this might have been the most comfortable I've ever felt going up it in a race. But... I was taking too many breaks to eat food. I was drinking water from my handheld, but the bottle containing my energy drink was still full. Dead weight, when in reality it was the solution to needing to stop and eat.

Forward progress? Yes. Relentless? Not really.

So, all-in-all, it was a wash. I crested the top of the pass in almost exactly the same amount of time as last year. I was amazed that my time was so close given the ridiculous number of stops I made on the way up. I must have really been hurting last year. Indeed, it was my worst split. I had planned on climbing up 20 minutes faster this year, but alas... it was not meant to be. Or, rather, I didn't make it happen.

As I started the short, steep descent down to Hopeless, my knee immediately reminded me that it was injured. Shit. I had forgotten to take more ibuprofen on the way up in preparation for the downhill. Over six hours had passed since I had last taken it. Down went two more little brown pills. I limped along as best I could.

I grabbed some more soup and potatoes at Hopeless. Man, they were incredibly salty! Too salty for my taste. (I guess I was doing okay on electrolytes!) Juggling two handhelds of water, plus a cup of soup, I carefully jogged down the narrow trail back below treeline. (I had finally dumped out my last bottle of energy drink at the top of Hope Pass. Untouched.) I promised myself I'd stop and fill up one of the bottles with energy drink on the way down.

Yeah... Sure you will, Andy.

My inefficiency continued. I stopped near the stream and took a moment to finish my potatoes and soup. My knee was not feeling great. Okay, but not as good as it had felt on the previous descent.

I continued on.

I stopped again.

This time to empty out rocks from one of my shoes. They had probably gotten in there during the river crossing miles and miles ago, but now my socks were dry enough that the grit was rattling around and becoming annoying.

As I finally emerged from the woods, it was still light out. This would be only the second time I've made it to Twin Lakes before dark. It's still a magical feeling.

The river crossing went as smoothly as could be expected. Soon I was slogging along through all the muddy puddles and tributaries on the far side. I knew I was falling behind on calories. I needed to eat something. How about a gel? I had grabbed one at Hopeless. Steeling myself, I ripped off the top and tried to suck it down. Ugh. I could only finish half. I couldn't do it. I almost gagged. I stuffed the half-empty wrapper into the breast pocket of my shirt.

Despite my growing stomach woes, I was still jogging. I was able to maintain a fairly respectable 13:00 min/mile pace through the rolling, sodden meadows just before Twin Lakes. The terrain reminded me of Bighorn.

As I acknowledged the cheers from the crowds of spectators lining the course, I glanced at my watch: 1:35. Okay. Not great, but not terrible. Certainly not disastrous. I expected it to be worse. Instead, my time was only 5 minutes slower than my modest goal for the split. Only 7 minutes slower than last year. Yes, I was slowly slipping off of my overall goal pace, but all was not lost.

A PR was probably out of the question at this point, but another big buckle?

Maybe, just maybe...

Twin Lakes to Half Pipe

As I write this section, I find myself pounding my desk and shouting at my monitor,

"Andy! Why did you stop?! Don't stop, you idiot! Stopping never works! Never! It's just a waste of time!"

As I approached my crew prior to the aid station proper, it was 6:55pm. Last year, it was 6:23pm. (I just looked it up.) How is that possible? After a July spent on the couch, running with an injured knee, without a pacer, and stopping every other mile from Winfield? You got me. I don't know.

But, as they say, the race doesn't start until Twin Lakes.

Mile 61.

And how did I start the race? By plopping down in a chair for 15 minutes.

I switched out of my wet, muddy shoes, prepared for the night to come, and tried to reboot my stomach. Two out of three of those were good ideas and could be accomplished in approximately three minutes. Rebooting my stomach by sitting down and nursing a Coke? Not advisable.

You can do that shit on the move, Andy.

I briefly contemplated eating some of my crew's leftover pizza, but I couldn't quite bring myself to do it. I knew things were continuing to go downhill with my stomach, and that this was an important inflection point in the race. I sipped some broth. It wasn't exactly inspiring. It had no significant calories and wasn't the solution I was so desperately searching for.

Then, who should jog past at that very moment, but Andy W.! The man, the myth, the legend! I had been ahead of him since he dropped to walk to eat a gel just before Pipeline. It was only a matter of time until he caught up. I was not surprised in the least. We exchanged cheerful hellos as he trotted past. Did he stop for 15 minutes, feeling sorry for himself? Nope! Did he big buckle? Hell, yes!

As I write this, I realize that I'm being hard on myself. It's easy to pass judgement from afar, from the comfort of my own chair. And, knowing what I know now, I had probably already sown the seeds of own my destruction long ago. A big buckle was very unlikely no matter what I did at that point. I was a ticking timebomb. It was only a matter of time until my knee became too jacked to run. The ibuprofen that was coursing through my system was surely making it harder on my stomach. Some amount of nausea seems inevitable in a 100-- but it's almost guaranteed when you take ibuprofen.

At a certain point, you can't control your stomach. You can only control your reaction to it.

And that brings me back to the mantra I opened this race report with in Part I:

Embrace the suck.

That was probably the best advice I could've given myself at that point.

Instead, I kept trying to wish it away.

Finally, I dragged myself out of the evil, seductive chair and headed out. I don't think I actually managed to eat much of anything while I was sitting there. Mostly Coke, I think. Some broth. Maybe a little bit of watermelon? I had also popped a caffeine pill. And I was still clutching a bottle of energy drink. Part of me knew that was my only hope. A nice portable source of steady, liquid calories which I could consume on the move. It was what had finally resurrected me at Bighorn. But, I continued to nurse the small bottle of Coke which I had stuffed in my vest pocket.

The climb out of Twin Lakes did not go particularly well. Once I got off the jeep road and onto the trail another wave of nausea washed over me. I puked again. Mostly Coke this time. And lots of stomach acid. Ugh.

My goal was to run this split faster than I ran it last year, when I also felt queasy and nothing felt appetizing. Once you reach Mt. Elbert, it becomes very runnable. It's a great section to make up some time on if you're feeling good. Unfortunately, that's a big if.

Could I rally?

I felt a bit better after my second puking episode and started moving again. I caught up to and passed by a few groups of runners who had passed me earlier. (Everyone had a pacer at this point. Why did I think going solo was a good idea again?) I jogged some of the flatter sections on the way up. At Mt. Elbert, I restocked on water and actually started hitting the energy drink. I'd take a small sip, and then wash it down with a sip of water. Wait 5 minutes. Repeat.

The jogging started to increase. It wasn't exactly effortless, but I was moving. In the growing darkness, I finally stopped and took off my vest to get out my headlamp. Fumbling around, it was one of those moments when I realized how nice having a pacer is! I was able swap gear on the move last year.

The jogging continued. I was feeling pretty good. Teetering on the edge, but good. I was now passing everyone-- especially on the gentle uphills, which I stubbornly refused to hike. I kept looking at my watch, checking my time for the split. It was going to be close. Very close. I really wanted to beat my time from last year and set a PR.

Folks around me were still commenting hopefully about the possibility of a big buckle.

12:00 min/miles... 11:00 min/miles... 10:00 min/miles...

Where the hell was Half Pipe?!

I kept hearing phantom generators in the distance, thinking I must be almost there. Finally the aid station emerged from the darkness, shrouded in light.

My PR time was 2:22:12.

I made it to the aid station in 2:22:46.

My goal was 2:15:00.

So close.

Half Pipe to Outward Bound

Yet so far.

That was it. That was my race. It ended at Half Pipe. Mile 70.

I completely shutdown.

I sat in the overwhelming warmth of the aid station tent and slowly drank a cup of Sprite. I tried some more watermelon. I pulled out my rain jacket and put it on for warmth.

I was back out on the course after not too long-- maybe 10 minutes-- but something had changed.

It was cold, so cold.

I found myself desperately trying to keep my eyes open while I wove back and forth across the dirt road.

Why was I so tired? Why was it so cold? I had run the next 25 miles in shorts and a t-shirt last year. I knew it wasn't really that cold. It couldn't be. This was all about my metabolism-- or lack thereof.

I walked every step of the way to Pipeline, staggering along, trying to stay awake. It was only 9pm! What the hell was happening? I had already taken 200mg of caffeine at Twin Lakes-- way more than last year-- and that was just for insurance. I shouldn't be falling asleep yet?! Hell, I don't usually struggle to keep my eyes open until 2 or 3 in the morning.

I didn't touch my energy drink, which the friendly aid station volunteers had refilled. I don't think I ate anything.

Whatever shred of willpower I had left evaporated in the cold, dark night air.

I lost it.

I collapsed into a chair at Pipeline. Quickly, I put on every warm layer I could. I was now wearing more clothing-- at least on my upper body-- than I wore during the snowshoe race last February (when the high for the day was in the teens). I was still cold. Christina and Jeremy draped two sleeping bags around me as I sat there, staring vacantly into space. I was able to drink an espresso without too much trouble, and I started working on a bottle of chocolate milk. I needed calories. Badly.

A PR was gone. A big buckle was gone. I was way, way down on my list of goals now. All I wanted to do was to make the nausea end. Somehow. I didn't care about my time any more. 25 hours immediately became 30 hours. I did not care. I hated 100s. I was so tired of battling my stomach.

After maybe a half an hour or so, I walked off towards Outward Bound. I was in the middle of the most runnable section of the course and I ran absolutely nothing.

Zombie-like, I made my way across the pasture, still desperately trying to keep my eyes open. Only the fear of stepping into one of the ankle-breaking holes that littered the course kept me awake. A nap sounded like a great idea. I dreamt about my nice, comfy bed only a few miles away.

Outward Bound to May Queen

Worst. Split. Ever.

More chair. More low-level, energy-sucking nausea. Some ginger ale. More caffeine. More ibuprofen. A valiant, 45-minute attempt to eat a hamburger. Nothing was really working.

In some ways, I had been through all this before.

Late-race nausea was the name of the game in '10 and '11. It was nothing new. But, the big difference was how far ahead of the cut-offs I was this year. Even after sitting at Twin Lakes for 15 minutes, walking from Half Pipe to Pipeline, sitting at Pipeline for 30 minutes, and walking to Outward Bound, I was still 3 frickin' hours ahead of the cut-off! I had absolutely no motivation to move. In previous years, I'd be flirting with being cut-off, racing against the clock. Stopping was simply not an option. This year I discovered that fear can actually be an advantage.

Instead pushing through it, I tried to make the nausea go away by sitting and nibbling on real food.

My wife was starting to get worried. She scrambled to line up a pacer for me for the next section, over Powerlines. I briefly contemplated it, but... no. No pacers. That was the one of the few goals that I still clung to. Before the race, I had asked Christina if she wanted to pace me the last 7 miles to the finish, if she felt up to it. She had always crewed for me, but never paced me. I thought it might be fun. Or end our marriage. Plus, she was training for the Golden Leaf Half Marathon in Aspen. She needed the miles! So, I was looking forward to that, but up until then... I was on my own.

In total, I spent an hour at Outward Bound. 1 hour. 60 minutes. Sitting there. Trying to eat. Waiting.

I never seriously contemplated dropping. Sure, I desperately wanted to go to sleep. I was apathetic. I was freezing. I was frustrated. I swore off 100s. I hated my stomach. But no DNF. I was going to finish this damn thing.

Finally, I dragged myself out of the chair and trudged back out into the night. I wasn't getting any closer to the finish line just sitting there. (Genius!)

All-in-all, the climb up Powerlines wasn't absolutely horrible. It wasn't good, but at least you're not supposed to be jogging up it. So, the fact that you're hiking up it doesn't feel like total defeat.

My knee had been bothering me more and more as the night wore on. I'm sure sitting down so much wasn't helping. (There are so many reasons not to sit down!) I wasn't limping yet, but even if I had the energy, jogging would've been difficult at this point.

Near the top of the first big climb I suddenly felt an intense, sharp pain in my right knee. I cried out. I swore loudly. Fuck! That was it. For a split second, I thought my race was over. My knee was shot. But, no... no... it was okay. I limped for about ten steps, but then it settled down to its normal, grumpy self. I guess it just wanted some attention!

Shortly after, I took a small sip of some energy drink. I hadn't drunk any since Half Pipe. Not to be outdone by my attention-seeking knee, my stomach immediately rejected it, and I found myself doubled over and throwing up for a third time. That was my last energy drink for the remainder of the race.

As I neared the top, my pace actually picked up a bit. I was hiking pretty well. Soon I saw the lights of Space Camp-- an unofficial aid station that some of my local friends had set up on the top of Powerlines this year. I had been looking forward to it all race. There was Smokey, Luke, and Jeff. All cheerful and full of energy. It was great to see them, but I was embarrassed to be moving so slowly, and to be in such bad shape. I filled up my water bottles and sipped some ginger ale. Smiling, Smokey joked how great it was to be watching the 100 this year instead of running it. We had both big buckled together last year. I rolled my eyes and laughed. After recounting how badly my race had fallen apart this year, I finally said thanks, waved to everyone, and wandered off into the dark.

The downhill sucked. My knee was having none of this downhill running shit. So, I walked. I sat on a rock. I ate another nut butter. My eyelids grew heavy again. I could barely stay awake. I zig-zagged across the trail, stumbling, trying to fight off sleep. Eventually, I discovered that as long as I was talking to someone I could stake awake. Soon, I started introducing myself to everyone nearby.

"Hi! I'm Andy! I don't have a pacer! I'm about to pass out! I need to talk to someone so that I can stay awake! What's your name? Where are you from? Is this your first Leadville?"

I kept up this routine until dawn. It worked wonders, and I met a lot of great people. Of course, in my delirium, I can't recall their names, but they were all awesome. Some first-timers. Some veterans. A multiple-time Leadwoman. Time passed by more quickly. I still wasn't moving fast, but at least the race didn't feel so much like a chore.

Every so often I glanced at my GPS, noting the time. Ironically, I did this not necessarily to track my progress this year, but to calculate where I had been the previous year at the same time. It was sobering.

I watched 24:28 pass by on my watch. Still 13.5 miles to go. That's what separates disappointment from victorious euphoria in this race.

May Queen to Finish

I met my crew just before May Queen and plopped down into the chair again. (Damn that chair! I should burn it!) I drank more chocolate milk. I don't know what else I did. Sat there, I guess? Who knows?

I actually didn't stay seated too ridiculously long. 10 minutes? 15 minutes, maybe? I knew I had to keep moving. It was still dark, but dawn wasn't too far away.

So, I kept walking, nursing my chocolate milk. My stomach still wasn't happy, but it was vaguely, kind of, sort of... manageable. I didn't dare run, though. It was all walking at this point, with the occasional exhausted groan mixed in for good measure.

Along the way, I ran into Sheila Huss-- the same runner who generously gave me her extra set of batteries at Bighorn! I had been chatting with her for a mile or so, trying to stay awake, before I realized it. Crazy! She was pacing her friend to her first Leadville finish. I thanked her again for saving my race.

Dawn finally rose about halfway to Tabor.

As I approached the boat ramp, I saw my wife jump up in the distance as she caught sight of me. She was wearing her running clothes, ready to pace. I was so thankful!

I had some business to take care of first, so I visited the nearby toilet. There was actually a short line so I stood there waiting, twiddling my thumbs, chatting with Christina. Ah, the incredible intensity of the final miles of a 100!

After not too much time, we set off. We were walking briskly. Better than I had been earlier. I was nursing a bottle of ginger ale, trying to get some calories in me. Every so often, Christina would cajole me, trying to get me to jog. I wasn't ready yet. More ginger ale was required.

I warned her that I'd probably trip and fall on my face going down the impossibly technical powerlines to the dam road. Somehow, we survived. With no poles, even.

At the bottom, I could see a long line of runners stretching into the distance on the pancake-flat dirt road. Oh, God. I have to jog this. This is ridiculous. I was supposed to jog this entire split, dammit!

And so I jogged. Finally.

It was a respectable pace for this late in the race. I was passing folks with ease.

I peeled off my warm layers and handed them to my wife, who was quickly becoming loaded down with all of my extra gear.

We passed by Jay and Leah, two friends from Leadville. Leah was running her first 100 and Jay, her fiance, was pacing her. She had been battling Achilles tendon pain all summer just like me. Leah was on the verge of tears, but she was still slowly moving forward. Everything hurt. (A few days later my wife would run into her again at the local coffee shop. She was already planning what she'd do differently next year. Welcome to the Leadville addiction, Leah!)

Shortly afterwards, Brian Costilow jogged past. A former Leadville-local, he was shooting for his 10th straight finish! He looked happy and full of energy. We cheered him on. His monster-sized, 1,000-mile buckle was in the bag! Simply amazing.

I was now out of ginger ale. So, I resorted to nibbling on a few chocolate chip cookies that I had stuffed in my pockets at one of the aid stations miles ago. I power-hiked strongly up the initial hill of the Boulevard, and continued jogging. This was familiar territory.

A seemingly endless stream of runners stretched before us. I caught a few of them, before dropping to a brisk walk again. I didn't quite have enough energy to sustain an uphill jog to the finish. My knee ached with a dull pain. It wasn't happy. Running 100 miles should definitely not be part of your recovery routine for runner's knee. I can confirm that.

The last benchmark that I briefly considered trying to beat was my time from '12. That would make this my second fastest Leadville time. But, after doing the math, I figured it would've required me to run 7-minute miles uphill to the finish. Um, yeah... that wasn't happening.

So, I just tried to enjoy these last few miles. Happy to be almost done. Knowing that soon I'd get to see the rest of my family. Just as we reached the pavement, we passed by Chris Boyack, whom I recognized from the blogosphere. I thanked him for his video report about his Bighorn experience. It definitely helped me with planning my own race this year. He was about to complete his sixth Leadville 100!

At the bottom of the 6th St hill, I started slowly jogging again. I saw my family cheering in the distance. Christina grabbed Ethan, carrying him in her arms, and Sierra and Aunt Jenn ran along beside us. Everyone was cheering now. I had a big smile on my face. I had been looking forward to finishing with my two kids for a long, long time. It was what helped me finally get out of that chair at Outward Bound.

Leadville '14 was ugly.

I made too many mistakes to count. Some obvious, some not so obvious.

But the finish was beautiful.

28:38:03. I got it done. Finish #5.

I'm already starting to plan what I'll do differently next year...

On a 6-mile, family hike two weeks later! (My knee was still hurting.)

A water obstacle.

See over there? That's where Papa threw up!

Future thru-hiker? Ultrarunner?

Throwing rocks into Hagerman Lake.

A huge thanks to my wife/crew/pacer. I couldn't have done it without you!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Leadville 100 Race Report (Part I)

Embrace the suck.

That should've been my mantra for this year's Leadville 100.

Instead my mantra was more like:

Try to avoid the suck. See what happens. If suckage occurs, slow down and maybe it will go away.

You'd think I would've known better since this would be my fifth consecutive running of Leadville. But, alas, my optimism won out and I thought that I could control my stomach if I just took it easy and drank plenty of water. Crazy, I know. Such hubris.

But let's rewind a bit.

Here was the situation as I toed the starting line at 4am on race day.

My training was solid from January to May. After a May full of racing (126 miles spread over 4 races-- Collegiate Peaks, Quad Rock, Sage Burner, and the Turquoise Lake Half), I came down with a sore/tight left Achilles. I stopped any significant running in early June and tapered aggressively for Bighorn. I went to PT and exercised/stretched/massaged/iced twice a day to help my Achilles heal. It didn't get much better, but it magically disappeared at Bighorn after about four hours of running. My right knee hurt after Bighorn (runner's knee). There were 8 weeks until Leadville. Too much time to just sit on the couch. My enthusiasm got the best of me, and I returned to normal July-level training too quickly and aggravated my knee. Dumb. Soon I couldn't run more than a mile without limping. I stopped all running with about 6 weeks to go. I went to PT and exercised/stretched/massaged/iced twice a day to help my Achilles and now my knee heal. I slowly worked my way back to hiking up and down 14ers. Eventually, with about 2-3 weeks left until Leadville, I managed to go on a couple of 10-15 mile training runs without any pain. I ran a few shorter routes at very close to my PR pace. (Probably because I was thoroughly tapered and well-rested.)

July was my lowest mileage month of the year. My lowest mileage July ever. I'd run more miles during the week of Leadville (106) than I ran during the entire month of July (105).

Not exactly a textbook training block.

So, it was hard to know what to expect. How worried should I be about my Achilles? My knee? What should my race strategy be? How should I pace myself? Certainly, if either of my injuries acted up then a second sub-25 hour finish was out of the question. But even on the longer course in '12 (which was 103 miles) I still managed to finish in 28:19 with excruciating IT band pain. So, it was still possible to finish with an injury, and finish with a pretty respectable time, too. (Possible? Yes. Smart? Perhaps not...)

Well, I basically decided to assume the best case scenario and just go for it. (Pro tip: never assume the best case scenario.) I wanted at least a shot at setting another PR. I envisioned basically two possible scenarios:
  1. My injuries aren't a factor. I control my stomach. I run faster during all the splits where I was nauseated last year. I set a nice, fat PR.
  2. My injuries are a factor. I slow way down. I control my stomach. I enjoy some real food, and leisurely finish somewhere around the 27 hour range.
Note the common phrase: I control my stomach. Therein lies the flaw.

What actually happened:
  1. My injuries were a factor, but not quite as bad as previous years. It wasn't entirely clear what my goal should be. I was in some kind of performance grey area. I eventually lost control of my stomach. I slowed way down. I tried to enjoy some real food, and a leisurely finish. That didn't work.
Ah, stomach... how I hate you.

Oh, I finished. Two minutes faster than Bighorn, but more than four hours slower than my Leadville time from last year. There were some triumphant high points, but there many, many low points. In a lot of ways, the low points were nothing really new. Perhaps that's what was most frustrating: I thought I could manage my stomach, I had a plan, but I just descended into the same enervating world of nausea that's happened in pretty much every 100 I've ever run. I would've been totally content to finish in 30 hours if I could've managed a nausea-free race. At least that would've been progress!

For the curious, here's how it all unfolded. 

Start to May Queen

I was excited to race.

Despite all the ups and downs of my training this year, insufficient desire-- at least on race day-- was not an issue. Sure, I had my doubts. I was in a different head space than I had been in since probably my first run in '10. That was the only other year that I started the race knowing that I was probably going to be battling an injury for much of it. (My ITBS in '12 was a race day surprise.)

I wasn't really worried about not finishing. I figured I could walk about 60 miles and still finish. But there were many unknowns. How ugly would it get?

I spent a good portion of the morning stretching and warming up my legs-- quite literally, as I strapped multiple heat packs to them. I wore knee warmers (primarily designed for biking) for some extra protection from the cold. I also strapped on two IT band straps-- one above each knee-- and wore compression socks in an effort to baby my calves. I didn't exactly feel nimble. More like a tank. If some minimalist, sandal-wearing nut had gushed about Born to Run at that very moment, I probably would've punched them in the face.

The start line was electric, as usual. There was so much energy. You could hear the commotion from my house a few blocks away. In the middle of the crowd, I bumped into Brandon, who I hoped I'd see a lot of during the race. We both had vaguely similar goals. I handed off my puffy and heat packs to my wife.

The shotgun fired, and we were off.

As impressive as the starting canyon at Bighorn is, there's nothing quite like the start of Leadville. More spectacle than scenery. A police escort leading a sea of runners down 6th St to the Boulevard. Cameras flashing. Spectators cheering, screaming, jumping up and down. Music blaring. A giant wave of headlamps stretching out into the night. During the first mile I always make sure to take a moment to turn around, to witness the ghostly mass of humanity illuminated behind me, headlamps bobbing up and down. We're all crazy enough to try to run 100 miles. At two miles above sea level. Even to a jaded veteran like me, that's still pretty inspiring.

The Boulevard and the dam road passed by quickly. I was neurotically checking my pace and my perceived effort and trying to compare them to last year. How out of shape was I? I couldn't really tell. Everything seemed normal. Routine. My Achilles was detectable, but actually felt pretty good. I hiked up the mini-powerlines climb and started comfortably jogging around the lake. My trip around Turquoise went smoothly. I somehow managed to fall into a gap for a while, and was able to jog almost all of the split without being right on top of the runner in front of me. That was a first. The reduced number of starters this year (back to '10-'11 levels) seemed to be having an effect. Dawn came, and I was able to turn off my headlamp as I passed by the second mine entrance-- a confirmation that my pace was about right. Fueling was going well. When I hit the pavement at May Queen I saw that I was basically right on schedule. I walked for a bit and ate a nut butter. That put me at ~850 calories and ~50 oz of fluid. I crossed the timing mat 3 minutes behind schedule-- a completely negligible amount this early in the race.

While physically everything went well during this leg, mentally I felt a bit detached at times. I hadn't raced since Bighorn. I had barely run during July. Jogging around Turquoise Lake felt almost dream-like.

Is this really happening? Am I really racing Leadville? Funny... How did that happen? I don't remember training for it...

May Queen to Outward Bound

My aid station transition went like clockwork. I met my veteran crew (my wife, Christina, and my brother-in-law, Jeremy) and barely slowed down. I just dropped some warm layers and my headlamp, and picked up two new bottles of energy drink. I kept my arm warmers and knee warmers on-- which I definitely appreciated, as the sheltered, north-facing Colorado Trail in the upcoming section can be quite chilly in the morning.

As planned, I hiked a few of the steeper sections on the single track to Hagerman Road. Once I hit the road, I began jogging and jogged to the top of Sugarloaf, chatting with a handful of runners along the way. Things still felt pretty casual. I was a tad slower than last year, but that was the plan.

Then came the downhill. My first real test.

I immediately began to feel my right knee on the descent. Nothing too painful, but definitely tweaky and a bit sore. Damn it. I was disappointed. I was hoping to at least make it to the descent into Twin Lakes (at mile 37) before that happened. Ah, shit.

I had planned to take the descent easy no matter what, but my knee gave me even more reason to. I don't think I broke a 9:00 min/mile on the way down.

Outward Bound to Half Pipe

I glanced at my watch as I passed by the old aid station location. I was a few minutes behind schedule, but nothing significant. The new aid station was another half a mile up the road, making this leg 11 miles now. It's getting to be a bit far to go without an aid station, in my opinion. At least when compared to the rest of the course.

That said, Outward Bound's new location is vastly superior from a logistical standpoint. The chaos from last year was totally absent. I didn't have to dodge any cars. There was no awkward out-and-back across the timing mat. I met my crew, ducked under the rope, and quickly resupplied. I dropped my arm warmers and one knee warmer. I switched shirts. My crew wasn't sure they could get to Pipeline in time to meet me, so I took everything I'd need until Twin Lakes. No big deal. (That fear turned out to be unwarranted.)

I was curious to see where the new course took us. There was no real trail through the pasture, just a swath of recently-mowed grass. Ankle-breaking holes were scattered throughout. Not a problem during the day, but I took note of them for my return trip during the night. Less pavement is always welcome, so on the whole I think the re-route is an improvement-- especially as it allows for very logical aid station flow. It's unlikely that it's as fast as the old route. But we're only talking one or two minutes at most.

As I hit the pavement, I saw Andy W. and JT up ahead. Two burly Leadmen. I caught up to them and we chatted for a while. Andy seemed to be experiencing some kind of low-point and was very self-deprecating, commenting about how high his heart rate was this early in the race. Blah, blah, blah. I just smiled. I knew that whatever he was experiencing was totally minor and temporary, and that he'd crush this race just like he always does! I pulled away a bit as his watch beeped and he dropped to a walk to eat a gel. (The man is a machine.) We had been taking it fairly easy while we were chatting, so I arrived at Pipeline a little slower than planned-- faster for the split from Outward Bound, since it was closer this year, but slightly slower when everything was taken into consideration. Again, just a few minutes behind schedule.

At Pipeline, I met my crew again, along with my family. I gave my kids big hugs, drank some ice water, dumped the rest of the water bottle on my head, and jogged off. While passing through the crowd, I ran into Woody A., who I hadn't seen in forever. (I miss his blog.) Positive as always, he cheered for me and we exchanged a high-five.

I jogged all the way to Half Pipe, still trying to keep things relatively easy. This is where I began to make nutrition mistakes last year, so I was extra attentive to my hydration and nutrition. I made sure to drink more water (~24 oz/hour), and to not consume too many calories too quickly.

My knee had been nagging me since the Powerlines descent. It wasn't causing me to limp, but it also wasn't going away.

Half Pipe to Twin Lakes

Unlike last year, I actually took a few minutes to stop at Half Pipe. I drank some broth, topped off my bottles, and headed back out.

Again, I jogged pretty much everything-- maybe walking one or two short stretches of the steeper stuff. I kept listening to my stomach, and I waited until I felt hungry to consume more energy drink. I didn't force it. I was still maintaining a 300+ calorie/hour rate, while also drinking extra water. Perfect.

My knee, however, was getting worse. If it wasn't affecting my pace physically yet, it was probably beginning to affect it mentally. It's hard to feel fast when you're injured. I took two Tylenol a few miles past Half Pipe. I was doubtful they'd do anything, but I figured I'd at least experiment with the safer option before I started popping ibuprofen.

Nope. No change.

At Mt. Elbert I topped off my bottles again and, sighing, swallowed two Advil.

It was going to be one of those years.

Twin Lakes to Hope Pass

Despite taking the downhill super easy, I rolled into Twin Lakes only 10 minutes behind schedule (for the entire 40 miles). I was 30 minutes behind last year's pace. I pretty much nailed the split, running it in 1:51 with a goal of 1:50. Nice. Last year I ran it in 1:45, but when I hit Twin I was beginning to look pale and felt a little woozy. This year, I felt great energy-wise. My knee was my main concern.

I informed my crew about my knee and made a few gear adjustments and backup plans for Winfield, where I'd see Jeremy next. I drank some more broth and headed out again, probably stopping for a total of 3-4 minutes. Longer than last year, but fine.

The stretch of trail to the river was a swampy mess this year. It was the worst I'd ever seen it. I knew this was coming, as I had scoped out this section of trail a week prior. There's nothing you can really do about it. So, I just slogged through the mud as best I could. Lake Creek was running quickly enough that I actually had to face upstream in the deeper sections. I couldn't just stroll across. Given the conditions, I'd say everyone lost a few minutes on this section (each way) when compared to previous years.

Now came the first climb up Hope Pass. This was the first split I planned on running faster than last year. Could I do it?

Hell, yes!

In hindsight, these were the best miles of the race for me. Probably some of the best miles of my humble ultrarunning career. It was so satisfying to run strongly up Hope-- my nemesis all these years. It felt just like a relaxed training run. I jogged (!) all the flatter sections and hiked the steeper sections. I stopped at streams at every opportunity and drank water and poured more water over my head to stay cool. I kept up with my energy drink, still maintaining a ~300 calories/hour rate. And I chatted everyone's ear off-- as JT can attest to. I was feeling fantastic. Not a single runner passed me, and I must have passed easily 30+ runners on the way up. Last year I staggered my way up Hope, dizzy, and unable to drink. What a contrast.

I ran into the leaders, Aish and Krar, right after Hopeless. Aish was his usual talkative self. Krar, who I greatly respect, was silent. He's an ultrarunning machine. Humble and soft-spoken outside of a race, but while racing... he's all business. Fierce.

I jogged/hiked up to the top of the pass and checked my time for the split: 2:02. A full 15 minutes faster than last year. I had cut my total deficit in half in the span of a few miles. That was so, so satisfying. I had figured out what I had done wrong last year, made some simple adjustments, and executed.

It doesn't get any better than that.

Hope Pass. The high point of my race, both figuratively and literally.

To be continued...

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Leadville 100 Pre-Race Thoughts (aka The Plan)

Goal: 23:40 vs. 24:29 (24:45)

Ah, hell. I'm just going to go for it.

Who knows exactly what my fitness is, but I'm almost certainly in worse shape than I was last year. Not terrible shape, but almost certainly not in '13 shape. Maybe more like '12 shape.

I have approximately the same number of miles and training time under my belt as '13, but my training this year basically peaked in mid-June, whereas last year I peaked at the end of July (which was my best month of training ever).

I actually have been able to match or exceed my PRs on a few uphill routes around Leadville (including both sides of Hope Pass), so I'm not totally out of shape. But, I'm basically fully tapered now as opposed to when I set those PRs in the middle of training last year. (In other words, the old PRs were set on tired legs.)

I returned to training too enthusiastically after Bighorn, and aggravated an injury leftover from the race. Runner's knee. It was a dumb, rookie mistake. I should have shut things down for two weeks after Bighorn and taken things super easy-- especially on the downhills, given the pain I was feeling in my right knee the day after Bighorn. Instead, I jumped right back into more-or-less normal training, with only a few days of rest. In my own misguided way I was trying to keep things easy, but it was nowhere near easy enough. When my knee finally really flared up, I was forced to stop running for almost two weeks. Then I slowly settled into only a 3-run per week routine. I've basically been power hiking up 14ers and walking down them for my long runs. Only recently have I actually jogged downhill at anything resembling my normal downhill pace. During Leadville, I'm definitely going to be taking all the downhills very conservatively. Being paranoid, I'm not fully convinced that my case of runner's knee won't flare up again during the 100. That would instantly prevent any chance of a PR. We'll see...

That said, I still want to try for my 5th consecutive PR at Leadville. It's worth a shot, at least.

What makes me think I can?

I honestly think that I lost ~80 minutes last year due to nausea. ~20 minutes on each climb up Hope Pass. ~10 minutes from Twin to Half Pipe. And then ~30 minutes from May Queen to the finish (which was also due to lack of motivation on my part, once I knew a big buckle was in the bag). If I say that I was ~30 minutes faster due to better raw fitness last year, that gives me room for a ~50 minute improvement. (Of course, that assumes that I never get nauseated or injured!)

At a high level, my strategy is pretty simple: improve my worst splits (when compared to the median time of all the finishers). Run the first 40 miles easier, push up Hope, but take the downhills easy, then really start pushing during the final 40 miles, culminating with the last split, which I want to make the biggest improvement on. Another way of summarizing this is to say that I want to make my 50 mile splits more even than they were last year-- slower going out, faster coming in.

If I had to pick 3 splits to improve, they would be: Twin to Hope, Winfield to Hope, and May Queen to the finish. If I'm a little slower on all the other splits: whatever.

No matter what my time is, if I'm not injured, I really want to jog the final 12.5 miles of the course. I don't care if a big buckle is out of the picture at that point. Must. Not. Walk.

Of course, if I do get injured, they'll be a change of plans. I don't want to get angry or depressed. Leadville was not my focus race this year. That was Bighorn. I signed up for Leadville again simply because it's the hometown race. If I'm injured, I'll just switch racing strategies: slow down, make myself as comfortable as possible, try to have fun, chat with my fellow racers, eat a lot, and drink beer. I plan on giving my crew an emergency 6-pack for just this contingency!

As long as I can stagger forward, I will not quit. The other streak I want to keep alive is my no DNF streak.

I will not be using pacers this year. I'm going solo. I'm not sure why, exactly, but I thought it would be fun to try something different. To mix it up a bit. I guess I want to see if I suffer better alone! Plus, having a pacer there to carry your stuff is cheating! (But, damn, is it nice!)

I will, however, be relying on my awesome, veteran crew to speed me through aid stations as fast as possible. They did such an amazing job last year that there's zero room for improvement in this area of the race! And I mean zero. Zip. Nada. My crew was the main reason I big buckled last year. I probably stopped for only 15 minutes during the entire race, blowing through most aid stations without stopping at all.

After four consecutive races with perfect weather, I'm mentally preparing for apocalyptic weather on race day. I think we're due... With all the monsoon weather we've been getting this July, it's not hard to imagine. I want to be ready to rock it '08 style! (Yeah, lightning at the top of Powerlines at 8am in the morning! Yeah, continuous drizzle throughout the night!)

As always, this race will be all about staying on top of my nutrition and hydration. If I don't get nauseated (and I don't get injured), I can almost guarantee a PR. Seriously. It's that important.

Mistakes I made last year: I didn't drink enough water in proportion to the calories I was consuming. I actually made the mistake of telling my crew to overfill my bottles (~400 calories/bottle) from Pipeline to Hopeless. (And I overfilled them myself from Hopeless to Winfield.) Dumb, but I was hungry at the time. Being a little hungry is not necessarily bad. It means things are moving through your stomach. Don't panic. Just keep drinking and maintain a 320 calorie/hour rate of energy drink. Don't eat more calories without drinking more water!

I'm going to top off my bottles at streams/aid stations throughout the day. At least during the hottest part of the day, I need to be drinking more than a bottle's worth of water per hour. Thus the top off to dilute whatever remaining energy drink is in the bottle.

I'm going to try to drink from an extra ice-filled water bottle every time I meet my crew. Then run off with my two bottles of energy drink for the next leg. This should effectively dilute the contents of my stomach, lowering its osmolarity, and aiding digestion.

I'm going to stop at the Half Pipe aid station this year. Both ways. It's worth it to take the time to hydrate more and grab a little bit of real food.

I'm going to try to eat some nut butters earlier on in the race (as opposed to the 3 gels I ate from the start to Fish). I think they'll be more filling.

I'm going to use caffeine pills instead of trying to choke down Redbull. My caffeine intake was probably a little low last year. (Though I don't remember being too tired.) I was just relying on Coke, which really doesn't have enough caffeine to be your sole source during the night.

This year I haven't been using any protein in my energy drink. (Just amino acids.) Who knows what effect that will have (if any)?

Of course, I'll ultimately end up resorting to Coke. Probably around mile 60. But, honestly, I need to stick to energy drink as long as I can. Just choke it down. Remember Bighorn. Maybe try to just drink Coke at the aid stations themselves, but don't carry it and drink it on the run?

For comparison purposes, I've been looking at some of my friends' splits from last year:

Andy W. ran a 23:18.
Marvin ran a 23:28.
Smokey ran a 24:11.
Mike ran a 24:18.

They all beat me!

Andy W. and Marvin will be running again this year, Mike will be pacing a friend, and Smokey has some secret plans for the top of Powerlines. So, hopefully I'll see them all out on the course!

You can think of my goal splits for this year's race as what I consider to be the smartest way to run a 23:40 race at Leadville. Even if I can't make these times this year-- due to nausea, lack of fitness, injury, etc.-- they'll probably be my goal splits for next year... and the year after that... until I actually achieve them!

I won't lie. I'm less confident about making my goal this year than I was last year. My training has been too inconsistent/unorthodox. I'm nursing multiple injuries. Every year, my PR gets harder for me to beat. That's the nature of PRs.

Who knows what will happen on race day? The important thing, really, is the relative level of effort for each split. Push hard up Hope. Push harder the later in the race it is. Take everything else easy.

Remember that in my report from last year, I emphasized that my improved fitness would account for very little of the 3 hour and 50 minute PR I ultimately set. It was all about efficient aid station management, better hydration/nutrition, staying injury-free, and running smarter.


Format: Split '14 Goal vs. '13 Time ('13 Goal)

May Queen 2:10 vs. 2:09 (2:10)
  • (+1 min) Take it easy.
2:05 is certainly doable, but would probably be the fastest I'd ever want to run this split. Use knee warmers during this section. If I have to jump into a restroom during this split, it could easily take 10 minutes longer than planned. Don't panic.

Smokey took a leisurely 2:24!

Fish 2:00 vs. 1:55 (2:00)
  • (-1 min) Stronger up Hagerman Road.
  • (+3 min) Slower down Powerlines.
  • (+3 min) Take it easy.
I certainly don't want to bomb down Powerlines like I did last year. Drop knee warmers at Fish. Unfortunately, this means I'll have to sit down and take off my shoes.

Smokey took a leisurely 2:07!

Half Pipe 1:20 vs. 1:11 (1:20)
  • (+9 min) Take it easy.
No room for improvement. I might naturally run this around 1:15, but no rush. The road does not play to my strengths this year. Only carry one bottle to Pipeline (like last year). Actually stop at Half Pipe to top off fluids.

Andy W. took 1:10. Everyone else was around 1:15.

Twin 1:50 vs. 1:46 (1:45)
  • (+4 min) Stop at aid station. Take it easy.
No room for improvement. Need to focus on hydration! This will probably be the hottest split. I'll probably hit Twin around 7:20-- 20 minutes slower than last year.

I ran this split faster than Andy W., Marvin, Smokey, and Mike. Need to slow down.

Hope 2:00 vs. 2:18 (2:15)
  • (-18 min) No nausea.
My first planned improvement over a split from last year. I can run this split in ~1:40 in training (never dropping below a 19 min/mile). I may need poles if my knee is acting up.

Everyone was around 2:00 or less. Mike took 1:46?! Holy shit!

Winfield 1:20 vs. 1:17 (1:25)
  • (+3 min) Take it easy.
I can run this split in ~1:00 in training. I don't think I was really pushing it last year, so maybe I can run this split faster? Don't plan on it, though. Top off bottles at streams! Push on the flat sections-- not the steep sections. Even if I hit Winfield at ~11 hours, a PR is not out of the question.

Everyone ran faster than 1:20 last year.

Hope 2:00 vs. 2:22 (2:15)
  • (-22 min) No nausea.
I can run this split in ~1:35 in training. Top off bottles at streams! This was the only split I ran slower than the median time last year. Thus, I have the most room for improvement. I may need poles if my knee is acting up.

Almost everyone took less than 2:00. 1:45 is remotely possible (but insanely strong)!

Twin 1:30 vs. 1:28 (1:25)
  • (+2 min) Take it easy. No pacer/crew at aid station.
I can run this split in ~1:00 in training. My time was right in the middle of everyone. Push on the flat sections-- not the steep sections.

Half Pipe 2:15 vs. 2:21 (2:15)
  • (-9 min) No nausea.
  • (+3 min) No pacer/crew at aid station.
Everyone ran faster than 2:15. If I really push, and I'm feeling good, I think I could maybe run 2:05. Maybe. This section is very, very runnable from Elbert to Half Pipe. It would be awesome to get to Half Pipe before the sunset. I just barely missed it last year.

Andy W. took 2:03!

Fish 1:20 vs. 1:26 (1:40)
  • (-6 min) Push harder.
Smokey took 1:18. I was pretty much in the middle of everyone. I want to push hard this split. Exhausting, but pretty damn flat and totally non-technical! As uninspiring as this section might be, it is every bit as important as Hope Pass. Run!

May Queen 2:45 vs. 2:45 (3:00)
  • (0 min) Push hard.
No room for improvement. This was my best split from last year. I beat everyone (Andy W., Marvin, Smokey, and Mike). I ran the 41st fastest split in the entire field! Matching my time will take some effort and motivation. Funny, I didn't feel like I was pushing especially hard last year (or even really totally on top of my nutrition), but... I don't know... something happened. I think my time from last year is a testament to how important focus is late in the race. I was focused on nailing this split, no doubt.

I will probably have to remix a bottle of energy drink at the first stream crossing.

Andy W. ran this split in 2:45 in '12.

Finish 3:10 vs. 3:32 (3:15)
  • (-22 min) Push hardest. No slacking off. No nausea.
Smokey ran this split in 3:09 and he was neck and neck with me just before the dam! (So he put over 20 minutes on me during the final ~6 miles! Incredible!) If I can pull off a Bighorn-style finish, I could theoretically run close to 3:00. This is the split where I want to push my hardest. No walking! I will need another bottle of energy drink at Tabor.

There you have it. Simple, right?

PS I'll close with some pictures from my last long run. I decided to try something different and actually climb the ridge from Hope Pass to the top of Mt. Hope. It was an absolutely gorgeous day. Stunning views. I'm so glad that I made the trip to the summit! Definitely worth it. Amazing views in all directions. This may have to become a yearly tradition.


Probably the best spot to spectate: above Hope Pass!

Hope Pass from the edge of Mt. Hope itself.

Twin Lakes from the top of Mt. Hope

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bighorn 100 Race Report

[Sorry that this race report took so long to write up! I think it took longer to write than it took to run the damn race! Post-race life in Leadville has been crazy, of course. Typical summer insanity. I could only manage to get a paragraph done every few mornings, while sipping my coffee before the kids woke up. I hope you enjoy it! I certainly enjoyed Bighorn.]

Pre Race

The Wednesday before the race, my final, easy, 2-mile jog was a disaster-- at least from a psychological perspective. My left Achilles tendon, which I had been dutifully rehabilitating for the last 3 weeks, felt no better. It was still tight and mildly sore. I had only run a total of 14 miles during my taper, trying to rest as much as possible. I know tendon injuries can be difficult to overcome, but really? No change? Nothing? Some days it felt better, some days not. I couldn't figure out a pattern. Occasionally, I'd feel optimistic that it was manageable, but now I was slipping into pessimism again. As I trotted up Hagerman Road, gazing at the beautiful snow-clad peaks across the valley, I wondered what the hell I was doing. Was Bighorn just going to degenerate into 70 miles of limping?

Despite the fact that I was probably in better shape than I'd ever been in this early in the year, it was impossible to feel confident as race day approached. As I packed for the race, my eyes briefly lingered on the little packets of painkillers I placed in each of my drop bags. Advil, Tylenol, Aleve... How many of these would I have to take? I've survived multiple 100s while fighting stabbing IT band pain, but Achilles tendonitis was a first for me. How bad would it get? So far it had never gotten so painful that it caused me to limp, but 100s have a way of finding any weaknesses you might have and amplifying them as the miles accumulate.

So, I approached Bighorn with a very conservative frame of mind. I really didn't know how the race would unfold, and I tried not to worry about it. Perceived effort was going to be my guide. I'd just listen to my body. Run within myself. All the standard ultrarunning cliches. I took some comfort in Bighorn's generous cut-off times. I had 34 hours to complete this sucker, if things went badly. Though I didn't relish the thought, I could walk every step if I needed to. I had picked 27 hours as a rough goal. Maybe estimate is a better word, as I didn't really plan to push to finish at any particular time. I probably wasn't quite as fit as I was for Leadville last year, I was nursing a potential injury, I didn't have any crew or pacers to help speed me through the aid stations, I had never step foot on the course before, and based on historical results, Bighorn just seemed... slower. More elevation gain. More mud.

I loaded all my running and camping gear into the Prius, kissed my wife and kids goodbye, and headed off for Wyoming on Thursday morning. First stop: the local coffee shop, to grab some breakfast. The drive up was uneventful. Towering, snowy mountains gave way to the heat and traffic of the Front Range, which in turn gave way to the big sky and rolling, grassy plains of Wyoming. When I finally hit I90, I looked east and thought of Boston 2,000 miles away. (Through the magic of the interwebs, I telecommute there every weekday.)

After registering, and dropping off my drop bags, I met my friend Alex and his family at the free pasta dinner in downtown Sheridan. I scarfed it up quickly, heading back for seconds and thirds. We then drove on to Dayton and up into the Bighorns to our campsite at Sibley Lake. Alex had camped there for the race last year and recommended it. I had waffled back and forth as to whether or not to camp or hotel it the night before the race. Ultimately, I decided to accept Alex's generous offer and camp with him and his family up at the lake. In hindsight, it was the right decision. Sibley Lake is about 30 minutes from downtown Dayton, but it's a scenic drive and a very peaceful site. The place was almost deserted. No other runners that I could see. It was good to get to experience a bit of the mountains before the race, and I'm sure it was much cooler than Dayton itself. I could better gauge what the temperatures might be like the following night on the course. It was also closer to my home elevation of 10,000 ft.

As a former thru-hiker, nothing is quite as relaxing as camping out under the stars. And that is just what I needed the night before the race. The simple rituals of camping are familiar and calming. I got a good night's sleep-- turning in just as it got dark (hiker midnight) and woke up the next morning at dawn. I went for a short stroll down to the lake itself, munching on breakfast (banana bread, scones, and smoothies), and soaked up the peaceful atmosphere, stretching my calves. I was relaxed, but also excited to spend some quality time in the mountains. I was ready.

Time to run 100 miles.

I glanced at my phone and noted the time. At Leadville, I'd already be past Mayqueen by now, climbing up Sugarloaf. I had mixed feelings about Bighorn's late start (11am). Not having to wake up at 2am for a 4am start certainly was nice, but an 11am start seemed a little... extreme to me... Well, whatever. I was here to experience something new; something different.

I quickly packed up camp and drove down to the park for the pre-race meeting. The excitement was palpable. Crowds of runners went about all their pre-race routines, myself included. I met Mike, my friend and neighbor from Leadville, in the parking lot. The pre-race meeting wasn't terribly helpful, but the one important fact I did take way from it was that there was 100 lbs of bacon out on the course. Now, that kind of information is absolutely vital! It drew a hearty round of applause.

After the meeting there's this awkward dead period until the 11am start. First, you have to drive/carpool four miles up a dirt road, following the Tongue River, to the actual starting line near the mouth of the canyon. (These would be the final four miles of the course, which finishes in downtown Dayton, at Scott Park where the meeting was held. That's where I left my car.) There's not really enough time to do anything, except maybe visit the restroom one final time, and wait. I sought out a spot in the shade and sat down, chatting with neighboring racers. Finally, 11am rolled around and we set off with a cheer. I assume there was a countdown, but I didn't hear it from my position way in the back of the pack. They obviously need to get themselves a shotgun!

Start (0.0) To Dry Fork (13.5)

Following a reoccurring pattern (of comparing Bighorn to Leadville), I couldn't help thinking to myself that I would already be 40 miles into Leadville by this time, passing through Twin Lakes. And here I was at mile 0 at Bighorn! The scenery in the canyon was breathtaking and I spent most of the first mile craning my neck to look straight up the steep canyon walls at the strange rock formations that towered above us. It sure as hell beat the Boulevard! The river was raging below us, as we climbed away from the dirt road on narrow, rolling single track.

I heard a few veterans comment that there seemed to be about twice the normal number of runners in the starting crowd. Determined to take things slowly, my first order of business was to get a sense of how my Achilles was feeling. It felt better during those initial 2 miles than it did during my final 2-mile shakedown jog. Still, I could feel it. Some tightness, but about as good as it's ever felt this June. I tried to keep my feet beneath me, to avoid over-striding and minimize toe-off. Theoretically that should lessen the load on my tendon.

Whenever I had talked to folks about Bighorn-- or read race reports about it-- two things were always mentioned: wild flowers and mud, with freezing nighttime temperatures coming in third, perhaps. As the course veered away from the river and steeply up a large, open, grassy hill, I could already confirm the first! Fields and fields of wild flowers. Truly spectacular. A long conga line of runners wound its way up the narrow single track up the hill. Since I had stopped at the Lower Sheep aid station to refill a bottle, I had dropped back a bit. I would guess that maybe 70% of the field was in front of me. It was pretty much impossible/pointless to pass anyone, so I tried to stay patient, chat with my neighbors, and eat/drink as many calories as I could. During the climb, I made a brief cameo in Brandon Fuller's video, as we were close together at this point. I kept telling myself that no one regrets going out too slow in a 100, but I won't lie-- I was a little exasperated at times at how relaxed the pace was. I could tell I wasn't going to hit my estimated time for the first split to Dry Fork. Relax, Andy. It's 100 miles. You're injured. Enjoy the scenery and calm down!

Near the top of the climb, the final switchback turned to double track and I could finally pick my own pace. I jogged the last bit and made my way to the Upper Sheep aid station, where I refilled my bottles, grabbed some melon, and took off for Dry Fork. The tightness in my Achilles was growing. It now felt like it did on my last run on Wednesday. I could feel myself slightly favoring my left leg. We were barely 3 hours into the race. Extrapolating from how I felt at the starting line, I guessed I'd probably be limping in another 3 hours. I was pissed. I swore to myself. A lot.

Dry Fork (13.5) to Footbridge (30.0)

Finally Dry Fork came into view, below us on a dirt road. I jogged down to it at a fair clip, dryly commenting that this might be my only 9 min/mile of the entire race. I arrived at the 3:30 mark. Already 30 minutes behind schedule-- for whatever that's worth. I was in and out of the aid station fairly quickly, just grabbing some more maltodextrin out of my drop bag. I had consumed 1,500+ calories at this point, which was great. I elected to not grab my ipod as I still wanted to keep things easy. I didn't want music to inadvertently cause me charge off too fast.

This next section to Footbridge was one of the more enjoyable of the race. It was generally rolling downhill, with a few short climbs, through a mixture of forest and fields. More incredible displays of wild flowers. I slowly worked my way up, passing many runners, but still trying to keep things easy. I continued to focus on eating and drinking and staying cool. It was hot, but not unbearably so. I felt good. Perhaps all that time in the sauna in Leadville had helped a bit?

Even though I was carrying two handhelds (40 oz), I still found myself running out of water just slightly before aid stations. Luckily there was a nice piped spring in this section, which I took advantage of. Just as I was about to run out of water, I turned the corner and there it was. Perfect. I settled into a routine that I would maintain more or less throughout the race: carrying one bottle of maltodextrin and one bottle of water, alternating between the two.

During this section I bumped into "Hawaiian Shirt" Ray (a familiar sight at pretty much any race in Colorado) and Neeraj Engineer, who I'd seen at a few races previously, but never introduced myself to. We chatted for a bit on what became a common topic of discussion during Bighorn (once folks found out where I lived)-- what I, as a Leadville local, thought of Lifetime's management of the 100 last year. I, uh... have some opinions on the subject.

And my Achilles? To my amazement it seemed to be getting better! WTF? As the miles clicked by, I caught myself thinking about it less and less. I joked to myself that I had just needed 20 miles to warm up. As silly as that sounds, it's the only explanation I can think of. Whatever. I'll take it! My biggest fear of the race actually seemed to be manageable!

As we descended "The Wall" down to the next major aid station: Footbridge, the scenery escalated to jaw-dropping. More than one runner ahead of me pulled off the trail to stop and take pictures. It really was that impressive. The next river canyon spread out below us. Gazing into the distance I could see the long, 18-mile climb up it that awaited us. I was feelin' good. Bring it!

Footbridge (30.0) to Jaws (48.0)

I made it to Footbridge from Dry Fork in about 3.5 hours, which was what I had predicted. That meant I was still 30 minutes behind schedule, however. I wasn't stressed about it. I was so elated that I wasn't limping-- nothing else mattered! This aid station stop was more chaotic, and I took a little time as I rummaged through my drop bags for more maltodextrin, my headlamp, the first of my cold weather gear, and swapped out my GPS. (I had trouble acquiring a signal this deep in the canyon, but it eventually locked on a mile or so out of the aid station.)

So far, so good.

I felt really comfortable at this point. And I was interested to see how the climb to the turnaround point would go. I set off at a relaxed pace-- a slow jog-- and headed up the canyon. The sun was getting lower in the sky and the shadows were growing longer. Heat was no longer a concern. The aid stations were smaller and more remote in this section, it seemed. But I was carrying pretty much everything I needed. I took a few sips of soup here and there, and grabbed a salted potato or two. I filled up my water bottles at the strongly-flowing stream near Leaky Mountain-- an interesting landmark, with multiple cascades springing out of its rocky cliff face. As described in the pre-race briefing, it looked like God had taken a shotgun to the mountain and blown it full of holes. You have to keep your eyes open for it, as it's only visible from one small meadow. There's an old sign there, pointing it out.

I passed a few more runners along this section (generally on the uphills, which I was still jogging), but it seemed like I had finally reached my natural position in the field after falling back on the slow initial climb up to Dry Fork. I reached the Spring Marsh aid station around dusk and put my headlamp on, preparing for the night to come. I fell in with a small group of runners around this point (Scott Wesemann and Katie Noelck, who I ran pretty much all of the second half of Quad Rock with this year). We passed the time sharing stories about some of our past races, laughing. This kind of friendly banter is one of the things I love most about ultras. Shortly after Spring Marsh, we encountered the first of many long, muddy sections. Wildflowers: check. Mud: check.

The leader passed us just before Elk Camp. I calculated I was about 9 miles behind. That's about how far behind the leader I typically am at Leadville while climbing Hope Pass. Not bad, not bad...

Now the fun began.

As I approached Elk Camp I noticed that my headlamp was growing dim after only being on for a mile or so. What the hell? I had just replaced the batteries! I had another headlamp waiting for me at Jaws, a few miles away, so I wasn't panicking yet. But still, it was frustrating. (My plan was to wear two headlamps-- one on my head and one on my waist-- to better illuminate the descent). At Elk Camp, sitting in the flickering light of the campfire, I refilled my bottles once again and popped my first caffeine pill. I drank a cup of soup and then set off again into the night.

Soon my headlamp grew so dim that it was useless. I was smack dab in the middle of the muddiest section of the course and I couldn't see anything! Was that a patch of mud? A rock? Grass? Where was the trail? Thankfully, I had the foresight to carry a backup microlight with me-- a habit I formed while hiking the Appalachian Trail. About the size of a nickel, and virtually weightless, it was tucked away in one of the pockets of my vest. It had saved my ass more than once. While not exactly blazing with the light of a 1,000 suns, I was able to use it to slowly negotiate my way through all the mud.

Then the thunder and lightning started.

Bright flashes of lightning illuminated the trail and thunder rumbled in the distance. In the darkness, I hadn't noticed the clouds roll in. The storm didn't seem to be directly overhead, but soon sprinkles of rain began to fall. I stopped yet again, muttering to myself, microlight clenched in my teeth, and took off my vest and got out my rain jacket. Grinning, I spread my arms wide, "Is this the best you've got, Bighorn?" 45 miles. Mud. Darkness. Thunder. Lightning. Rain. A dead headlamp. Hell, yeah!

After only 10 minutes or so, the rain abated. Certainly not a major storm, but enough to make things interesting. I plodded along, gingerly trying to follow the cow path, er... trail up the valley. When I crossed the dirt road, I knew I was close. Things leveled out a bit and I slowly jogged my way into Jaws, the not-quite-halfway point of the race. Soon I crossed paths with Mike in the darkness. He was maybe 30 minutes ahead of me, I'd guess. We chatted briefly and I filled him in on the good news (no Achilles pain!) and the not-so-good news (dead headlamp!). He looked to be in good spirits, and I wished him well.

Jaws (48.0) to Footbridge (66.0)

I wasn't really paying much attention to time at this point, but I did glance at my watch and noted that I had slipped a few more minutes off of my goal pace. Oh, whatever. Considering my headlamp shenanigans, I was happy to have made it as quickly as I did. I sat down, sipped some more soup, and rummaged through my drop bag. The aid station volunteers were very friendly and asked a few obligatory questions about my general well-being. Just fine, I assured them. Especially since I now had a huge, new bright headlamp strapped to my head! (Cue ominous foreshadowing music.)

Even though I hadn't felt the need to wear the extra layers I had already picked up at Footbridge, I picked up my second set of extra layers at Jaws. Better to have 'em and not need 'em, than to need 'em and not have 'em, I rationalized. I don't like extra weight, but I also didn't want to be caught unprepared.

I was in-and-out of Jaws fairly quickly, all things considered. My vest was bulging with extra clothing and maltodextrin. Just outside of the tent, who should I bump into but my buddy Alex! Woo hoo! He was just behind me and looking great. He was crushing it, and was way ahead of his estimated time to Jaws. Psyched for him, I headed out into the night again for the long descent back down to Footbridge.

Now the fun continued.

Just as I crossed the road-- about a mile from Jaws-- and began to drop back in to the valley, my headlamp flashed three times.

Fuuuck!!! You have got to be kidding me!

That was the signal that its batteries were running low.

I spent a good 5 or 10 minutes swearing to myself. I had just changed its batteries before the race. I had tested the frickin' batteries with a frickin' multimeter! What the hell?! Fuckedity, fuck, fuck!

Never. Ever. Ever. Use. Old. Batteries.

Ever.

Of course, I had yet another (my third!) headlamp stashed in my drop bag at Footbridge, but that was 17 miles and an eternity away. Crap. As I wallowed through the mud again, my light grew dimmer and dimmer. Soon I had to stop and switch to my microlight again. Another half a mile or so and I realized that this simply wasn't going to work. I was moving way too slowly. I had no choice, but to start begging incoming runners for extra batteries.

"Excuse me, I'm sorry, but I don't suppose you have any extra batteries, do you? AA? I've had two headlamps die on me..."

"Oh, yeah. Sure. I've got some in my pack. Let me get 'em for you..."

Sheila Huss saved my race. The very first runner I asked! As we sat together next to the muddy trail on a fallen log, I promised to name my next child after her, and thanked her profusely. Did she need anything? Food? Water? Tylenol? Antacid? Anything? Are you sure it's okay that I'm stealing your spare batteries? She looked a little exhausted from the climb-- perhaps she was going through a rough patch-- but I looked her up after the race and she finished strong. I was glad. Later, I tracked her down on Facebook and thanked her again. Sheila, you rock. I owe you one!

With my newly-powered headlamp, I was now able to make reasonable progress through the muddy fields and back down to Elk Camp. As I sat in the firelight, fiddling with my gear, I noticed that the aid station captain had a pistol strapped to his waist. In his thick, cowboy drawl, he was chatting with another aid station volunteer, discussing the pros and cons of various calibers of side arms. Horses whinnied in the shadows just outside of the flickering firelight. Overhead, stars were sprinkled across the inky night sky. I chuckled to myself, and turned to them, and laughing, thanked them for sharing this quintessential Wyoming experience with me: a campfire, horses, and firearms! This is why I signed up for Bighorn!

As I jogged off, I smiled and wondered if I should've packed a pistol in my drop bag at Jaws. I mean, I didn't even have trekking poles to fend off... what, exactly? A bear? A moose? A mountain lion? More likely: an angry cow. It's all good. But I had bigger (and more realistic) things to worry about, like staying awake, staying warm, and continuing to eat and drink enough.

The rest of my descent into Footbridge is kind of a blur. I never got too tired; the caffeine pills appeared to be doing their job. I seemed to be in a gap of sorts and ran the entire way solo, all through the night. I'd maybe see one or two runners at the aid stations, but that's about it. Maybe a flicker or two of a headlamp up ahead in the distance. I refilled my bottles again at the raging stream beneath Leaky Mountain.

Strangely, I never felt particularly cold. I only wore the two lightest of my five (!!) possible layers. I put on a pair of light gloves, but I didn't even feel the need to wear a warm, fleece hat. Where were the 20 degree temperatures people were predicting? I don't know... but I never felt 'em. I was extremely skeptical that it would ever get that cold (below freezing? in June? really?), but I certainly expected to be wearing more layers than I was. I guess maybe I had enough calories in me-- and I was moving well enough (though by no means fast)-- that I was generating enough heat to stay warm? Or maybe it's because I live in Leadville, where there are only two frost-free months per year!

The dawn chorus began sometime in the faint morning light around 5am. I was running east, so I could see the sky slowly growing lighter ahead of me. I was getting increasingly hungry, but maltodextrin was losing its appeal. Stupidly, I stopped consuming any calories and continued to push for the aid station, where I was hoping I could get some real food. My stomach started growling, but I stubbornly refused to drink.

At last, to my great relief, Footbridge came in to view around the corner. But, I had dug myself into a bit of a hole at this point. I was ravenous. I rolled in around 5:30am-- about hour behind my predicted time. I had lost yet more time on the surprisingly-slow descent from Jaws.

Footbridge (66.0) to Dry Fork (82.5)

I staggered over to a chair next to a foot-washing station and flopped down. (Yes, an officially designated foot washing station, complete with a bucket with fresh water and a sparklingly clean white washcloth!) I grabbed my drop bags, took off my mud-encrusted shoes, peeled off my wet, knee-high compression socks (not the easiest thing to do), and proceeded to clean my feet and replace my socks and shoes with dry, clean copies. All the while, I was slowly nursing cups of ginger ale, trying to get something into my stomach. I was right on the edge and needed to be very careful. Rebooting a stomach is a delicate process.

The aid station volunteers at Footbridge were fantastic. Incredibly attentive. Always asking if I needed anything, and checking in to see how I felt. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mike seated in a nearby chair. I gave a shout. I don't think I'd ever seen him this late in a race before-- he's usually over an hour ahead of me by this time at Leadville. It was good to see a familiar face. He smiled, and heartily recommended the Egg McMuffins they were serving. He'd scarfed down two. A particularly friendly volunteer, who had taken me under her wing, brought one over to me. I slowly started munching on it. Delicious! I cracked open a chilled Starbucks Doubleshot Espresso that I had stashed in my drop bag and took a sip. Ahhh... Now, where did I put my copy of the morning paper?

Somehow-- and I'm not quite sure how-- I managed to spend 37 minutes at Footbridge. I wasn't even keeping track, and I only realized it after the race was over and the splits were published. I guess between washing my feet, changing my shoes and socks, eating a leisurely breakfast, swapping out nighttime gear for daytime gear, and swapping my GPS again (which had been recharging in my drop bag), it took, uh... a while. 37 minutes is almost certainly more time than I spent at all the aid stations during the entire Leadville 100 last year! (Yes, the entire race!) Impressive.

Feeling better-- not exactly full, but certainly better-- I began the hike up the dreaded "Wall". It actually wasn't that bad. Steep, but relatively short. Maybe two miles of serious uphill. I stopped once to take off a layer as I climbed out of the cool river canyon and up into the bright morning sunlight. Near the top, I carefully tried to make my way around the last patch of mud on the course. Splosh! Slurp! Gaah! My foot slipped off a rock and I staggered into a large puddle, covering my pristine shoes in mud. Oh, come on! It was the last mud puddle on the course! Damn it.

By the next aid station, Bear Camp, my breakfast had worn off. Sadly, the greasy, salty magic of the Egg McMuffin was gone. Maltodextrin still wasn't very palatable, so I tried to cobble something together out the limited supplies available to me. I really, really wanted some Coke. But, sadly no Coke. Bear Camp is very remote and everything must be horse-packed in. Chocolate? Maybe chocolate would help. I spent the next mile or so nibbling mini Snickers bars and drinking water. My lack of appetite had turned into nausea, but I was battling it as best I could. More water. I must drink more water. Lay down a foundation for the calories. Keep them flowing through the gut. I slowly got down a Justin's Nut Butter. I refilled water at the gushing piped spring next to the trail. It was much colder and more refreshing than the water at the aid station. Runners began to pass me. I wasn't stopping, but I was moving very slowly. Minimal jogging. Mostly hiking.

The seven miles between Bear Camp and Cow Camp is the longest stretch between aid stations in the race. I was on my own. As I slowly staggered along, the forest (with its pleasant shade) diminished and the meadows increased. The temperature began to rise. I needed to do something to break out of this bad patch! Anything is preferable to nausea. Dammit, Andy! You're carrying all the nutrition you need! Drink the damn energy drink! I don't care if you're tired of it! There are no other options! I had been sipping it off and on, but now I began to make a concerted effort to choke down entire bottles. I became methodical about it, checking my watch and maintaining a steady intake. Water, maltodextrin, more water, more maltodextrin. 320 calories down. 640 calories down. Drink!

I began to jog.

The runners who had passed me earlier slipped back into sight. I was closing in on them. The reboot was working. And finally, there was Cow Camp in the distance. I was still on the edge, but I seemed to be recovering. I plopped down in a lawn chair, with the smell of sizzling bacon wafting through the air. I remixed another bottle of energy drink and asked if there was any Coke available. No Coke, just Pepsi. Well, that would have to do. I took a few sips, said thanks, and got up. I wasn't getting any closer to Dry Fork sitting there. Burp! Wait? What was this feeling? Uh oh... About a hundred feet out of the aid station I finally puked. Ugh. I was bent over, hands-on-knees for a good two minutes or so. Judging from my stomach contents strewn on the trail, I didn't lose too many calories, but damn... I was hoping to make it the entire race without puking. Instead I had to settle for a massive PR. 77 puke-free miles. A 26-mile improvement! I gave a weak "Woo hoo!" I smiled and muttered to myself, "That's ultra!" (My favorite post-puke mantra.)

I knew what I had to do. Build back up. Water. A little bit of melon. More water. Some energy drink. More water. More energy drink. I was an eating machine. What I felt like eating did not matter. If I didn't have an appetite, it did not matter. Must. Keep. Consuming. Liquid. Calories.

The 100-mile race had now intersected the 50K and 30K races. Runners were slowly jogging past, congratulating me, and giving encouragement. I didn't exactly feel heroic at that very moment, but it was good to have some company. I fell into a conversation with a cheerful, very friendly woman from Wyoming, named Alisha. She was running the 50K today, and recounted the epic story of her first 100-mile race at Wasatch, where she finished a mere 37 seconds before the 36 hour cut-off! Wow. It was so nice to have someone to talk to, to take my mind off of endless, rolling double track up to Dry Fork. You can see the aid station, perched up on a hill, from miles and miles away. She was doing most of the talking, while I continued to drain my water bottles of energy drink and grunted acknowledgment in between sips. I truly appreciated her company. Eventually, she said good luck, waved goodbye, and bounded ahead up the trail.

And that's when the miracle happened.

Though already a ways ahead, I found myself trying to keep up with her. I must've begun to tap into some deeper reservoir of energy, because I simply refused to drop to a hike, even as the grade grew steadily steeper and steeper. After about a mile or so, I was hanging maybe 100 yards behind Alisha. I don't even think she knew I was following her. We started slowly passing other runners-- 30K, 50K, 100 milers. (You could tell by the color of the race bibs.) It was mile 81 and I was stubbornly jogging uphill! Amazing. I'm not good at judging grades, but it became very steep as we neared the aid station. Powerlines steep. Everyone around me was hiking. What the hell was going on? I would barely be able to jog a grade like this while fresh! Perhaps it was the extra oxygen? But we were still at over 7,000 ft. An enthusiastic spectator was clapping with approval and yelling, "You're an animal!" I don't know what happened, but I was in the zone. It was very emotional. 100 miler races have a way of stripping you to your core. Your emotions become raw and unfiltered. I couldn't tell you exactly what I was feeling, but it was some combination of anger, sadness, and joy. That moment made the entire race worth running.

I was back from the dead.

Just outside of the aid station Alisha turned around (probably to see what the commotion was about) and saw me there right behind her. Surprised, she also cheered heartily. And who I did I see laying on the grass in the sunshine with his family, but Alex! Wait? What? How was Alex at Dry Fork? As it turned out, he had slipped through Footbridge ahead of me, while I was taking my time cleaning my feet and eating a leisurely breakfast. Neither of us saw each other! He had been running just a bit in front of me for the entire section! I was psyched that he was doing so well, but bummed that my stomach had prevented us from running all those miles together. It would've been great to have bumped into him earlier on the trail. That would've been fun.

Dry Fork (82.5) to Finish (100.0)

I was in and out of Dry Fork as quickly as possible. I wanted to see how far I could continue to push with this mysterious surge of energy I was experiencing. I grabbed my drop bag, switched my shoes again (but not my socks), and also grabbed my ipod.

It was finally time for some music.

As I left Dry Fork, I waved to Alex and hollered that I was heading out. He waved backed. He looked good, he was just changing his shoes and taking care of his feet, I think. I had refilled my bottles and had a fistful of melon that I was chomping away at. The uphill continued for a bit, up a dirt road, and then a bit of single track, to the top of a ridge. As my music kicked in, and I enjoyed the melon, I smiled. A few clusters of runners were ahead of me, hiking uphill-- including the lead 50-mile runner, who had passed through the aid station just as I was leaving. I felt so good, so confident. It was incredible. I just knew that I was going to run up that entire hill.

And I did.

There I was, hanging just behind the lead 50 mile runner, as we passed everyone going up the climb. He was at mile 35, I was at mile 83. I couldn't believe what was happening. I gave up trying to understand it, and just went with it. It was perhaps a little reckless, but it felt so good. I mean, I still had 17 miles to go! What the hell was I doing? But, I threw caution to the wind and started dropping 8-minute miles down the back side of the ridge. I was flying past runners. Soaring. I glanced at my GPS at one point and it read 7:50 min/mile. Insanity!

When the course switched to single track again, I calmed down a bit and slowed to a more sustainable pace. I was still moving well. The terrain was gently rolling until the Upper Sheep aid station. There I grabbed some more melon, which seemed to be working for me, and some more Pepsi. As I crossed the stream just outside of the aid station, I dipped my hat in the water to cool off. It was starting to get a bit toasty with the afternoon sun blazing down on us. After a short downhill section through a meadow, and another stream crossing, the last significant uphill remained.

A short, but steep ascent up to the final ridge above the Tongue River, I power hiked up it with authority. I passed a few more runners in front of me on the way up, exchanging pleasantries along the way. I couldn't believe my uphill legs were this strong almost 90 miles into the race! I was amazed.

My amazement soon became tempered as I began the steep, tortuous 4-mile descent to Lower Sheep. It wasn't called "Lower" for nothing! My quads were completely shot and I winced with every step. My pace was painfully slow. Apparently designed by wandering cattle, the trail barely switch backed. It was narrow and lumpy and generally went straight down. The lower I got, the hotter it got. I was beginning to bake as I approached the canyon floor. A few 50-mile runners shot past me like I was standing still. What I wouldn't give for their downhill legs! The beautiful fields of wildflowers took my mind off the pain and the heat a bit, but I would still say that these were some of the more humbling miles I've ever run during a 100-miler.

As I finally reached Lower Sheep, a small pack of 100-milers had caught up to me. We all looked fairly beat up, but they were moving better than I, that's for sure. There were 2 miles of rolling single track left-- on the rocky slopes above the river-- and then the endless, flat dirt road back to town and the finish line. The total mileage left was now in the single digits. I could do this, but it still remained to be seen how ugly it would get.

My nausea was beginning to creep back. My energy was fading. Could I somehow rally again? I really, really didn't want to have to walk the road back to town. That was one of my main goals for the race. Finish strong. In fact, I had saved my most ambitious split (i.e., faster than the historical average) for the final 17 miles from Dry Fork to the finish. In the abstract, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but now, staring reality in the face, I was beginning to question the wisdom of it!

The canyon was like an oven. I slowly jogged along the undulating, rocky trail, glancing at the raging river below. Now would not be a good time to stumble and fall! I continued to nurse my bottle of energy drink, grimacing. But, anything was preferable to nausea. Not eating was not an option. At the Tongue River trail head, I grabbed some gummy bears in desperation. More sugar! Need more sugar! Spectators clapped and a couple of laughing kids hosed me down with their squirt guns.

Now the dirt road. My legs felt heavy. I trotted along. Another 50-miler passed me, jogging along at a fair clip. He turned the corner. I had to run this. I had to. 5 miles left. I'm not walking this road!

I started running... slowly.

I turned the corner and saw the 50-miler walking. A target. I cranked my music louder. Just 5 more miles! Come on! More gummy bears. More energy drink. Soon thunder rumbled through the canyon. I looked back over my shoulder and saw dark clouds forming above. I passed the 50-miler and we exchanged nods. I was beginning to move now. My energy was returning. My legs were loosening up. 12:00 min/miles became 11:00 min/miles, became 10:00 min/miles. Rain began to pour down, soaking me. No need to get my rain jacket out, it was welcome. Cooling. I kept replaying the same song over and over on my ipod.

"To get a thousand miles from the earth, a rocket would need this much power... This much power... This much power... This much power... This much power..."

10:00 min/miles became 9:00 min/miles. I was pushing. Hard. I could barely hold back the tears. It was another ones of those moments I've only experienced running ultramarathons. Transcendent.

"Guess who's back, mutha---?"

I passed by groups of runners, lost in my own world. Focused. I just needed to finish this thing. I blew through the final aid station without stopping, passing up a popsicle offered to me by a young girl riding a bike. You know you're focused when you turn down a popsicle!

Two miles to go.

I was nearing town. I saw one final 100-miler in front of me in the distance. I recognized him from the last climb up to the final ridge. Sean Mullet. He was being paced by his wife, I think, and moving very well. The rain had let up a bit. It took me forever to finally pull up alongside of him. I said hi and we chatted about the final miles, smiling, so happy to be almost done. The ups, the brutal downs, the heat, the mud... everything that makes Bighorn, Bighorn. As we reached the intersection just before the park I began to pull away and he waved me on.

Two helpful volunteers stopped whatever little traffic there was in the small mountain town of Dayton, and I charged across the street and headed for the park and the finish line. Oh God, finally. The finish line. I gave it my best and sprinted through the crowds of cheering spectators, across the grass, and through the arch.

Done.

28 hours and 40 minutes. 62nd place out of 149 finishers (out of maybe ~240 starters?).

Post Race

Some random thoughts.

Bighorn was fun. It was tough. It was dramatic. It was new. It was authentic. It did not lack for challenges.

It was everything I'd hoped it would be.

If you're thinking about doing it, do it.

Mike finished 20 minutes ahead of me, and Alex finished 30 minutes behind me. We all had solid races-- especially Alex, who simply crushed it. It was a 100-mile PR for him. I'm so happy for him. I think he said that it was the first 100 where after he finished he didn't immediately swear off ever running another 100 miler again!

All in all, I felt I ran a pretty solid race. I wasn't in a rush. I approached the race very conservatively. I really wanted to soak it all in. Enjoy the aid stations. Enjoy the camaraderie. Enjoy the scenery. I wanted to feel good. And I did-- mostly. I've struggled with nausea in all my 100 milers, so Bighorn was nothing new. In fact, it was probably one of my best races as far as my stomach was concerned. It took a little effort, but I was able to eat an entire plate of food (hamburger, potato salad, pasta salad, etc.) within 30 minutes of finishing the race. That's a very good sign.

It is a huge confidence boost to know that I can turn things around late in a race. Being able to come back from the dead like I did at Bighorn was so uplifting. It makes me super excited to see what I can do at Leadville. I have never been able to run from Mayqueen to the finish. To be able to drop 11:00-9:00 min/miles at miles 95-100 at Bighorn was incredible. It felt so good. (I'm sure the oxygen at 4,000 ft helped a bit!)

Endurance. That's what this sport is about. Whoever slows down the least, wins.

When all was said and done, I think it was the footing that made Bighorn slower when compared to the Leadville. Yeah, Bighorn has a bit more elevation gain than Leadville, but not that much more, really. Leadville's altitude more than cancels it out. It's really Bighorn's narrow, lumpy, muddy single track that slows you down when compared to Leadville. It's not that Bighorn is really that technical, but Leadville is just so damn runnable: smooth, buttery trail, plenty of dirt road, and even pavement. And Bighorn's major descents happen at less-than-ideal times: at night, when you can't see very well, and at mile 90, when your legs are probably completely shot. (I still don't quite know why the 18-mile descent from Jaws to Footbridge takes so long, but apparently it does! That's got to be the key to running a fast race.)

The Bighorn-Leadville relationship isn't linear. I think Bighorn is harder to run faster. Just look at the course records for the two races. However, I think if you can finish Leadville in 28-29 hours feeling good, then you can probably finish Bighorn in about the same time-- maybe an hour slower. However, finishing Leadville in 24-25 hours is much, much easier than finishing Bighorn in 24-25 hours. I mean, you're going to be just outside of the top 10 if you finish Bighorn in less than 24 hours. My Ultrasignup ranking for last year's Leadville compared this year's Bighorn is less than 1% better! That has everything to do with the winners' times. It took me over 4 hours longer to run Bighorn.