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.


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.


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.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Bighorn 100 Pre-Race Thoughts


Well, my Achilles seems to be on the mend. (Knock on wood.) This is good. I was a little nervous there for a while... I guess I still am, but no more so than I typically am prior to a big race. Some mysterious little niggle or ache always seems to surface every year during my final weeks of training. It gives me something to obsess over during my taper.

And, man, am I tapering. Holy crap. This is definitely the most I've ever tapered for a race. The first week I didn't run at all. Just two 50-minute bike rides around the Mineral Belt Trail during the week, and then a beautiful, 2-hour bike ride up Independence Pass on the weekend. I went for a 4-mile test run to start the second week. I could still feel my Achilles, which was a bit depressing. (I've never felt it on the bike.) I kept up with the twice daily calf stretches and strengthening routines, wore compression socks all the time, iced the tendon after workouts and before bed, and went to one more PT session. Finally, on Thursday I went for a 5-mile run during which I felt a big improvement. Barely any perceptible tightness. That was a huge relief. On Sunday I went for a short hike up an insanely windy Mt. Sherman and felt fine. I can still feel it occasionally when it stiffens up, but it's definitely trending in the right direction. This week all I have planned is one final, easy 2-mile flat run on Wednesday. Then it's go time.

The view while climbing up Independence Pass. Leadville livin' at its finest.

I will say this: tapering so thoroughly (and focusing so intently on one part of your body) really helps you diagnose how much you beat yourself up during training. As they say, exercise makes you weaker. And, it's rest that makes you stronger. During peak training, tired legs can be mistaken for normal. But when you stop, and really focus on something simple and easily quantifiable like the number of calf raises you can perform, you can see massive improvements after just a few days of recovery. You realize your legs were more trashed than you initially thought.

Better to show up at the starting line slightly under-trained than over-tired, right?

In my early years of running I don't think I would've had the discipline to shut things down so quickly and thoroughly for my taper. But now I realize that any minuscule improvements that I might have been able to make during the last three weeks are irrelevant when compared to the importance of addressing my injury. That's all that matters. Let's hope it works.

Besides taking it super easy, and trying to coax my Achilles back to health, the only other thing that I'm doing differently during my taper for Bighorn is some semi-serious heat training. Don't laugh, but the 80+ degree weather that's currently forecast for the race is waaay hotter than anything I've run in this year. (Hopefully it won't be quite that hot on the course itself-- except probably for the final stretch into town on the second day.) In previous years, I'd just try to run during the hottest part of the day. But this year, with my running being so limited, I've been biking over to the rec center everyday and jumping in the sauna. At first I could only tolerate 30 minutes at maximum heat (about 170 degrees, I think), but now I'm able to survive a full hour. I drink 60 oz of water while I'm in there and come out weighing exactly what I weighed when I entered! Damn. Supposedly you can see some results within a week-- specifically, increased blood plasma to help with cooling. I figure that, as far as sedentary activities go, there's not much more you can do than bake in a sauna at 10,000 ft to encourage your body to make more blood! We'll see if I notice any effect... If nothing else, I find it strangely relaxing. It provides a good opportunity for me to stretch, too.

Leadville Marathon

The highlight of my taper has definitely been volunteering at the Venir Aid Station during the Leadville Marathon on Saturday. The wind was unrelenting, it was freezing just standing around at 11,500 ft, I got sunburned, chapped lips, hoarse from cheering, and a blister on my thumb from pouring water all day.

In short: It. Was. Awesome.

Really inspiring, and so fun to see so many friends running. Hanging out with the rest of the aid station crew was great. And I got to peek behind the curtain a bit. It really makes me appreciate the amount of effort it takes to organize a race of this size. It was also fascinating to witness firsthand the state of all the runners who passed through (twice). It didn't really matter if they were near the front, somewhere in the middle, or in the back. Some were pushing hard, looking serious, but hanging in there, some where laughing, talkative, and full of energy, and others were definitely in a dark place and staggered by with barely a glance or a grunt of acknowledgement. No matter their position, I tried my best to get folks to smile as they slogged up the hill. I saw 5-hour finishers who looked worse than than any 7-hour finisher, and 4-hour finishers who looked unbelievably fresh and happy. (Barefoot Alex, you are my hero, man!) Amazing. Oh, and then there's Michael Aish, the second place finisher, who's in a class by himself. He must've stood around the aid station for a full 5 minutes, cracking jokes, chatting, and casually snacking before the third place guy showed up and he finally took off. As he bounded gracefully down the trail, I noticed how crazy-strong his stride was-- with his heels practically hitting his butt. It was like he was on the track. Ridiculous. At least pretend like you're working, Mike! (Damn Olympians...)

The view from Venir Aid Station. Not too shabby.
The marathon race is no joke. It's tough.

My sincere congratulations to everyone who ran it!

After the race, I was looking at the results for a good 10 minutes before I noticed myself at the edge of the screen in the picture in the background! That must've been taken coming back around Ball Mountain during last year's race. Good times.

 Bighorn Preparations

“A plan is worthless, but planning is everything.”

While I've talked to many previous racers, read numerous race reports, watched videos from the race, and crunched all the data I could from past results, I really don't know what to expect.

It's refreshing to be so ignorant.

Honestly, I'm happy that I have no idea how long it's going to take me to get to, say, the Upper Sheep aid station. There are too many variables and too many aid stations for me to keep track of. I've just got some rough estimates for the major aid stations: Dry Fork, Footbridge, and Jaws. That's where my drop bags will be. No crew. No pacers. This will be a major (and hopefully fun) departure from my hyper-planned big-buckle attempt last year at Leadville. Do I want to run as fast and as efficiently as possible? Yes, of course. But Bighorn will be all about making the proper adjustments on-the-fly.

I've got data on what the average splits were for all 24-28 hour finishers from '13 and '12. (Which is actually a pretty small sample size given the relatively small number of participants.) And, as I'm a big believer in trying to run even splits, I'll generally try to run the first half of the race about an hour slower, and the second half of the race an hour faster, than the typical finisher. I'd really, really, really like to be able to jog those final downhill/flat 10 miles to the finish. They will take an eternity if I can't.

(If you're curious about the historical split data, just let me know and I can share it. I've got it up on Google Docs in spreadsheet form, in all its color-coded glory.)

One of the bits of data that jumped out at me was that Footbridge to Jaws takes runners only a tiny bit longer on average than coming back down from Jaws to Footbridge. This confused me, as the first split has 4,500 ft of elevation gain and the reverse has 4,500 ft of elevation loss. That's significant. Shouldn't runners be much faster on the return? But, I guess that's when night sets in. You're running the entire second split in the dark. And, apparently the trail is just technical enough to slow you down so that your downhill trip is only a few minutes faster than your uphill trip. We'll see... I've given myself 5:30 to get up and 5:30 to get down. I would hope that I could run faster on the downhill, but I don't want to take anything for granted.

Gear-wise, I'm not doing too much different. I'll be rockin' the placebo, er... compression socks during the race, trying to baby my calves a bit. Wearing a small, lightweight vest to carry any extra supplies/warm layers, while carrying two handheld water bottles. Also carrying a bandanna to soak in streams to keep cool. No poles. I'll be wearing my trusty Montrail FluidFlexes, just like last year, with a spare pair in one of my drop bags. I might switch to my Bondi-B's for the final 18 miles. There will be extra socks in all my drop bags to help combat wet feet. I'm going to try wearing a waist-mounted headlamp-- in addition to a head-mounted one-- during the night to better light the trail. I apologize in advance to all the runners I blind as I pass by! I'll be using caffeine pills to try to stay awake, instead of Redbull or 5-Hour Energy-- that stuff is crap. I can't drink it anymore. Standing on a mountainside all day, volunteering at Venir, was certainly a good reminder of how damn cold it can get in the mountains. I swore to myself that I will not skimp on warm layers (to save weight) and end up freezing during the long, cold night in the canyon.

And, of course, I'll be drinking my patented, homemade concoction during race. Almost exclusively. Sure, I'll have some Coke and some soup, and maybe some melon-- I enjoy those aid station staples-- but 95% of all my calories will come from my energy drink: pure maltodextrin, Vitargo, Gatorade, BCAAs, and some salt. Nothing special. Basically, all the ingredients you'd find in a GU, but in liquid form (and a hell of a lot cheaper). 320 calories (combined with ~24 oz of water) an hour, for the entire race. Or as long as I can stand it. At Quad Rock, I had basically no stomach issues for 11 hours-- a PR for me. It'll certainly be harder to get everything right at Bighorn, since it'll be so much hotter and last so much longer. But, I'm confident that this is by far the best nutrition strategy for me. Nothing else has come close.

Final Thoughts

I'm excited.

And grateful.

Grateful to be able to spend a weekend in the beautiful Bighorn mountains of Wyoming.

Grateful for my wife and family, who let me pursue crazy hobbies like ultra running!

It'll be great to hang out with my friends and fellow racers, Alex and Mike. And hopefully I'll make some new friends while I'm out on the course. I want to be the most positive, friendly runner out there.

Am I as fit as I was last August before the Leadville 100? Nope. I'm about 350 miles and 90,000 feet of vertical short. But... Am I more experienced? More grizzled? A little smarter? I'd like to think so!

I'm as ready as I'll ever be...

Let's do this!

At the trailhead at the top of Iowa Gulch (on the 50 course).

Climbing up Mt. Sherman.

The summit, with the moon and the Sawatch in the distance. You can see Hope Pass, if you know what you're looking for...

Looking north, seeking shelter from the hurricane force winds. I love mountains!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Month in Review (May)

5/2010: 238.4 miles
5/2011: 192.2 miles
5/2012: 216.5 miles
5/2013: 223.6 miles
5/2014: 237.7 miles

Well, the hay's in the barn, as they say.

My training for the Bighorn 100 wrapped up last weekend with the Turquoise Lake Half Marathon on Saturday and a pre-dawn ascent of Mt. Elbert on Sunday.

This year, the half marathon was a "heavy" half marathon due to the south road being closed due to spring flooding and the risk of mud/rock slides. The race was rerouted along the north road where it rejoined the original course at Mayqueen. The north road is hillier (+500 ft) and longer (+2.5 mi) than the south road, so it was quite a different race than previous incarnations. While my calves felt a little tight/weak on the initial uphill, I maintained a reasonable pace during the climb and then I really hammered the downhill into Mayqueen. I believe it was the first time I logged a sub-7:00 min/mile during a race in my life! And I definitely set my 5K PR (all downhill, of course). After running steady on the uphill, I began passing racers on the downhill and for the rest of the race on the trail around the lake. The single track was a full-blown obstacle course this year, with raging streams-- one so swollen that a rope was hung up to help ford it, plenty of mud, deep puddles, and a handful of downed trees which forced off-trail detours through the woods. When all was said and done, I crossed the finish line, gasping for breath, in 13th place. 1st in my age group. (I guess all the other 40 year old Leadville runners were at Melanzana's 20th anniversary celebration in town!) I was pretty happy with the result. I gave it an honest effort. It's hard to compare my time to my PR on the normal course last year, but my average pace was only 20 seconds/mile slower than last year. I'd say that's pretty good given the extra vertical, distance, and especially the challenging trail conditions. (Last year I came in 19th place and 3rd in my age group, for what it's worth.) I think I ran the uphills a little stronger last year, but I definitely ran the downhills much, much stronger this year.

I woke up at 2:45am the following morning and made my way down to the South Elbert TH with my friend and neighbor, Mike. I haven't really climbed any serious mountains yet this year, and I wanted to summit at least one 14er before I began my taper. It was great to have company, and Mike and I chatted away as we hiked up the mountain in the darkness. (Mike's running Bighorn this year, as well.) There was very little snow until we reached tree line-- and only one or two short sections where post-holing was a concern. Above tree line it was all snow, but it was practically concrete. It had snowed a tiny bit the night before and the wind began to pick up and blow swirling clouds of snow into us. Clouds still shrouded the peaks, and coalesced and broke apart in dramatic fashion. As we neared 14,000 ft, the sun finally emerged over the mountains to the east, creating a beautiful orange glow in all the chaotically blowing powder. The wind was fierce, and it was uncomfortably chilly at the summit, but well worth the struggle to get there. We quickly turned around and gingerly made our way back down to the shelter of tree line. There were a few exposed snow fields that I wished I had my microspikes for, but slowly kicking steps worked just fine. Another trip up Mt. Elbert complete. I'm lucky to live so close to such amazing mountains. I really should take advantage of it more often.

Ever since Sage Burner I've felt a mild tightness/soreness in my left Achilles tendon. I never felt it during the race itself, but it surfaced shortly afterwards. It's never gotten so bad that it affected my gait while I was running, but it can definitely be quite stiff in the morning after a hard workout. I kept an eye on it, applied ice, and hoped it would quietly disappear. But, of course, running the half marathon and then summiting a 14er didn't help. Finally on Monday, I called it quits, stopped running, and scheduled an appointment with the local physical therapist. After grilling me on my training history, analyzing my gait, flexibility, balance, and strength, she agreed with my amateur assessment that basically I overworked my calves with all my racing and my sudden jump in vertical in May. After jabbing some acupuncture needles into my calf (and electrifying them!) to activate trigger points, she assigned me some exercises to perform during the next couple of weeks leading up to the race. Mostly calf flexibility and strengthening routines twice a day. After the initial soreness, my calf has responded well and is loosening up and healing. My Achilles tendon is happier and I rarely feel it any more. I've gone on a couple bike rides since, but that's about it. And biking is pretty much all that's on my plate until the 100. I'll go for maybe three or four 5-mile shake out runs during the next week or two, but that's about it.

So, it's a pretty hard taper as far as my tapers usually go. Normally, I'd go for a final 18-mile long run two weeks out from a 100. Instead, I'm going to bike up Independence Pass tomorrow. I'm just trying to take it easy and stay loose. It's frustrating to come down with an injury so close to a big race, but I'm fairly confident I should be able to fully recover by the 20th. I'm just being extra paranoid.

I'm excited for Bighorn. It's absolutely crazy to be tapering in June! It feels so strange. I'm so used to my taper-in-August routine. I'll be volunteering all day at the Venir Aid Station next week for the Leadville Marathon. I've run it every year for the last four years. It'll be strange to be on the sidelines, but fun to still be involved in the race.

I'll close with some pictures I took two weeks ago on my last long run down Clear Creek Road to Winfield. It was a beautiful morning, and it was good to return to Winfield. My first time back since the Leadville 100 last year. Spring has finally sprung in the mountains.

Hope Pass!

Mmm... 1,200 vertical feet/mile!

On course!

The split to the old jeep road down to Winfield.

Far more talented climbers than I.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Sage Burner 50K Race Report

Wow. Quad Rock certainly took its toll on my legs. Three days later I was still hobbling around the house in the morning, wincing with each step. Picking up my kids took considerable effort and was usually accompanied by a melodramatic groan or two. I biked for an easy 30 minutes on Sunday and Monday, and then went for a short 3 mile jog around the block on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I took Friday off. Each jog felt a little better than the last. I could feel the various aches and pains from Quad Rock diminishing. Thankfully, I had no major injuries. Just the typical soreness and tweakiness that follows an all-day effort.

Of all my three back-to-back-to-back races this May I gave Sage Burner the least amount of attention. Perhaps because it was the last race. Perhaps because I felt my PR there was soft. I glanced at the GPS tracks from my previous races on Thursday night. It still amazes me how badly I blew up last year. Truly epic. All I really had to do this year was stay properly hydrated. How hard could that be? Simple, right? Yet somehow I've managed to dig myself into a hole almost every time I've run Sage Burner. The weather at Quad Rock never really got that hot, so yet again Sage Burner would prove to be my first ~70 degree race of the year.

I drove down to Gunnison on Friday evening. It's a nice drive, which I joke can be briefly summarized as: mining, cows, mining, cows. I picked up my bib in town, ate a huge dinner at Garlic Mike's, and then drove to Hartman Rocks to camp. I slept in the Subaru just a few feet off the course. Even in the car, it was a bit chilly at night and I was glad to have a down jacket and sleeping bag to keep me warm. My alarm woke me at 4am, I ate a small breakfast, and then rolled over and went back to sleep until 6am or so.

My secret race strategy this year? Carry two water bottles. Yup, genius. The aid stations are generally not that far apart (4-6 miles), but I didn't want to ever be caught without water or energy drink. Throughout the race, I usually kept one bottle full of energy drink and the other bottle about half full of water. Any extra water I would dump on my head as I approached an aid station.

After a short speech from the RD, and a brief countdown, the race immediately began with a short climb straight up onto the mesa. Sage Burner doesn't really have that many long, sustained climbs, but it certainly undulates up and down almost continuously. You run up to the edge of the mesa, then off to a scenic high point with a juniper tree and a pile of rocks to negotiate, then back down off the mesa, then climb back up a gulch, then pick a different high point to visit, then down off the mesa again, repeat for 31 miles.

I took the first half of the race very easy. I just enjoyed the scenery, chatted briefly as I passed various racers, and kept a careful eye on my fueling. My legs felt fine. Not exactly springy, but nothing to complain about. I was very happy to be feeling as good as I was a mere week after Quad Rock.

The 25K and the 50K run more or less together for a while, making for a more social experience. But after the split, it's just the hardy 50K racers. There are generally only 50 or so of us every year, and you can get quite spread out across the starkly beautiful, sage-filled landscape.

I had been leap frogging with a few racers during the first half, but ended up passing them as the uphills kept coming. After the aid station at Skull Pass, around mile 16, I mentally flipped a switch. I had reached the 3 hour mark, I felt great, and I was ready to make my move. So I put on my ipod, cranked up the music, and went to work.

The second half of my race was one of the most satisfying experiences of my brief running career. I felt strong, totally in control, and unfazed by the distance. In some ways, having run a grueling 50 miler the week before was an advantage. Sixteen miles? It's nothing. A warmup. As I cruised across the desolate mesa top towards a distant high point, I could barely catch a glimpse of a red shirt more than a mile ahead of me. My first target. I passed him maybe three miles later, walking, depleted in the growing afternoon heat. That was me last year.

Where was everyone else? I bombed down a technical drainage and out onto a road, where I saw the next runner. I was running sub 8's at this point-- about my top speed. After a short flat stretch on the road, the course climbs up an incredibly steep jeep road back up onto the mesa again. Ah ha! I could see a pack of four runners ahead of me on the switch backs. I grinned at the contrast. A moment ago I was hauling ass on the flats, and now I was passing folks just as convincingly while dropping agonizingly slow 20 minute miles! Ultrarunning is certainly not about locking into a particular pace, but rather a particular level of effort. I was running everything, but my pace was all over the map.

And so the race went. I have rarely felt as confident as I did that afternoon. I was on fire. Everything felt effortless. It wasn't like I was running faster than I normally do on a typical training run, but the distance was having absolutely no effect on me. It was like I somehow managed to string together six 5-mile runs all run at my typical 5-mile training pace. It was glorious.

I finally charged across the finish line in 5:36 in 10th (?!) place. A whopping 45 minute PR. I negative split the race by about 25 minutes and passed about a quarter of the field in the final 10 miles. I had zero stomach issues and felt perfect the whole day. If anything, I probably took the first half of the race a little too easy. But, damn, I wouldn't trade anything for feeling like I did during the second half. Perhaps this was the race that my training this year has best suited me for-- not too fast, not too vertical, yet long enough that endurance matters.

A blurry picture of me near the start. (C) Gregg Morin.
Everyone was very friendly at the finish line, and I was touched by how many racers took the time to shake my hand and tell me how strong I looked as I passed them. I made sure to emphasize that it had taken me five years to finally get it right!

Sage Burner was my very first ultra (and my first marathon!) back in '10, so it holds a special significance for me. I've run it every year since and have accumulated quite a few memories on the course. ("Oh, look! I think that's where I threw up in '12!") I'm so happy to have finally beat the heat and had a successful race there. I've always felt that I hadn't yet reached my potential on the course, but feeling and doing are two very different things. I'm proud to have finally executed. That's all you can ever really ask for in any given race.

I'm so happy to have been able to end my streak of racing this May on a high note. I've got three more weeks of training left before tapering for Bighorn. I'm actually looking forward to taking things a bit easier next week-- especially on my long run. I think I've got enough quality long runs under my belt, and now it's time to focus on some shorter, mid-week quality sessions. Most of the regular trails I run around Leadville should melt out next week. I can't wait.

Next up: the Turquoise Lake Half Marathon. A very different beast. It's going to hurt; it's going to be fun. It's always a good workout. (Probably a better workout for me than yet another 20 miler at this point...)