Monday, June 3, 2013

Sage Burner 50K Race Report

I guess one advantage of waiting a week before writing up a post about my experience at this year's Sage Burner 50K is that I've calmed down a bit and perhaps I've gained a little perspective.

It did not go well. I suffered through one of my more spectacular blow-ups in a race.

I think the lesson here is this: When you live near here:

Cottonwood Pass on the drive down to Gunnison. Notice anything?

be extra careful racing here:

The course at Hartman Rocks. Notice the lack of anything?

Okay, okay. That's a slight exaggeration. I don't actually live on top of Cottonwood Pass, but you get my point. It was hot. Much hotter than this poor Leadville resident was prepared for. I mean, if I wasn't a complete idiot I certainly could've survived the race in much better condition than I did, so the outcome was far from pre-determined, but I made some stupid mistakes and basically walked it in from mile 20.

I was feeling very confident coming into the race, just off a big PR at Collegiate Peaks. In fact, I may have felt a little too confident. I thought a new PR at Sage Burner was all but guaranteed.  (I mean, I majored in Philosophy and Classics as an undergraduate. You would think I'd know a thing or two about hubris.) I didn't read my race report from last year carefully enough. I spoke about how dehydrated I felt after the race (surprise!) and how I really needed to consume more fluids-- especially when I wasn't heat acclimated. I guess that fact was overshadowed by the euphoria of setting a 34 minute PR last year. Ah, the irony.

I've run the Sage Burner 50K four times. You'd think I'd learn, right? Here are my times over the years, with the temperature on race day in parentheses.

2013: 6:21 (71F)
2012: 6:20 (64F)
2011: 7:05 (73F)
2010: 6:54 (71F)

So, this year wasn't especially hot. The historical average for Gunnison, CO on 5/27 is 67F. So, it was a little hotter than average, but certainly not anything noteworthy. However, as usual, this race is the first time I run in ~70F weather each year. That presents a bit of a challenge. For comparison, the high in Buena Vista for Collegiate Peaks was ~50F. And that race starts earlier and (since the 25 is shorter) finishes earlier.

Here are my splits.

Do you, perhaps, notice a trend in my average pace after say... mile 20? Yeah... that's me suffering from dehydration.

Up until mile 16.5, everything was going great. Of course, I had already sown the seeds of my own destruction by that point, but I was feeling good and I was right where I expected to be. I was already 25 minutes (!!!) up on my splits from last year (though the course alternates direction each year, so they aren't quite comparable). I wouldn't say that I went out too aggressive, just that I didn't go out conservative (if that makes any sense).

First problem: I was only carrying one 20 oz hand held water bottle. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I should've carried two.

Second problem: I was more concerned with my calorie intake than water intake. Wrong priority.

Third problem: My calorie source (maltodextrin powder) displaces my water! My 20 oz water bottle probably only had 17 oz of actual water in it given the huge amount of powder I dump into it to get 300+ calories per bottle.

I knew things were taking a turn for the worse around mile 20, but I adjusted incorrectly. I was a little behind on calories at that point and in my myopia I assumed that that was my problem. So, what did I do? I put 150% of my normal powder into my water bottle, displacing even more liquid! I wanted to carry more water as well, but I had no means to do so. I tried to compensate by stopping at the aid stations and drinking coke, but it was far too little, too late. Around mile 28 or so I started feeling dizzy and even started walking some of the downhills. It was that bad.

But wait! It gets worse!

I was at mile 30.3, at the top of a hill with the finish line in sight below. My watch read something like 6:12. I had ~8 minutes to run about a half a mile downhill to set a PR. And I couldn't do it! As I started staggering downhill, I immediately got a massive side stitch on my right side. No amount of massage, deep breathing, or swearing could break it. I remember thinking to myself, "Damn it, this is just perfect. I executed this race so poorly, I don't deserve a PR."

Perhaps a little melodramatic, but that's what I was thinking. I was very frustrated with myself. Not because of my time per se, but because of how poorly I had executed my race. I had the fitness to run a ~5:40 race-- I'm sure of it.  But I made far too many mistakes-- and mistakes that I had already made in the past and should have been smart enough to address. I am more proud of my ridiculously slow time of 7:05 in 2011-- where I ran the race suffering from a terrible head cold.

In fact, in 2011, I ran faster from mile 20 on than I did this year! That is really eye-opening.

Proof that dehydration is worse than a head cold.

When I finally arrived back home in Leadville, I hopped on the scale. I weighed in at 166, down from 172. And that's after drinking a coke, some chocolate milk, and a fruit smoothie on the two hour drive back home. Not good. Not good at all. I finally peed sometime after dinner, about 5 hours after the race had ended.

If I was forced to try to take something positive away from the race is would be this: it was the most focused experiment in dehydration that I've ever run. In the past, when I've finished a race poorly-- especially a race in which I thought heat was a factor-- I've debated whether or not it was a lack of calories or a lack of water that did me in. (Most often, I think it was a combination of both.) But I feel like things were more clear cut during this race. Sage Burner 2013 was a shining example of what dehydration does to performance. I consumed 1,800 calories during the race. Calories were definitely not the issue. Fitness was also definitely not the issue. I was more than prepared to run the distance. I was well rested. I had no injuries. There is nothing to blame except heat and dehydration (and stupidity, of course).

Interestingly, I've experienced that exact side stitch in two other races before (both during the Silver Rush 50 around mile 36, at the top of Iowa Gulch), where I was slightly mystified as to its cause. It always seems to happen late in a hot race, when I'm transitioning from struggling uphill (slowly hiking) to trying to run downhill. Now, I can be fairly confident that it was due to a lack of water. To my surprise, the side stitch actually re-surfaced during my next two recovery runs in Leadville (both of which were very easy efforts of ~6 miles). I guess my diaphragm was still recovering? Pretty amazing.

So, how much water should I be drinking? Not a ton. I think maybe 24 to 28 oz an hour, max. The problem was that I was only getting ~17 oz an hour during the 50K. Drink to thirst. Believe me, I wanted to drink to thirst, but I simply couldn't due to a lack of capacity.

From here on out, I plan to train carrying two full water bottles-- even on my short, midweek runs. I think that will be my most common hydration setup for my next few races, so I might as well practice.

Self flagellation aside for a moment, I did have a fun time travelling to and racing in Gunnison. Sage Burner is a small, but fun race. It's a tradition of mine and it's always been a good challenge. I just wish I could've run it better.

Ah, well... Live and learn. (Come on, Andy... learn!)


  1. So body-weight down 3.5%, even after replenishing at the end? That does seem like a lot.

  2. Yeah, I'm guessing I was about 5% down at the finish line. I've occasionally thought that I should bring a scale along with me to some of these races-- in the name of science!

  3. Could I just cut and paste your race report from SB and use it as my own, since I haven't written one and I had the EXACT same problems? (except I did have a hydration pack on, I just couldn't stomach what was in my pack and couldn't force down ANYTHING after mile 20). I have never been so dehydrated. People laugh when I saw it was hot in Gunnison (and I live in Denver) but it takes me a long time to acclimate to those temps (at altitude too, which I'm also not used to). Too bad you were still super fast at the start compared to me; we could have kept each other company in our misery. :)

    Sorry you had such a tough race (but you still beat my sorry butt). I guess it's good to know the things we need for the "big" race though, so I'm trying to look it SB as "what not to do at Leadville to destroy that race, too". :) Knowledge it key! Great job finishing and at least not DNFing :).

  4. Ha! Misery loves company, I guess. I'm pretty sure most people ran a slower race than they expected out there this year. Every year I have one or two races which don't go so well. They're good reminders to stay vigilant for your focus race. For example, I feel like I've never really run a good Silver Rush 50, but every year it still helps me prepare (and priortize) properly for the 100...