Thursday, May 9, 2013

Collegiate Peaks Race Report

The Story

The days leading up the CPTR 25 were a bit hectic, but such is life with two working parents and two little kids. I managed to squeeze in a short, 3-mile jog on Thursday morning. We then packed up the kids and drove down to Denver to buy a new car to replace our old Honda (which was struck outside our house while we were on vacation at the Grand Canyon). Christina continued on to Ft. Collins for a conference she had on Friday, while I loaded up the kids into the new car and turned around and drove back to Leadville. Friday morning I drove Sierra down to Frisco for her dance class (usually Mom's duty) and then hurried back to Leadville to at least get in a few hours of work while our nanny was still around. During my lunch break, I snuck out for a final 2-mile jog and packed up my racing gear for the next morning. I took over child care at 4pm. Christina returned from her conference at 8pm. I was in bed by 9pm.

A textbook taper, really.

My alarm went off at 4am and I went about my pre-race routine. A big cup of coffee (with plenty of half-and-half) and a fruit smoothie (soy milk, 1+ cup of rice, yogurt, banana, maple syrup, oj, whatever frozen berries are on hand, etc.). Five bags of maltodextrin stuffed in my running vest, sunblock applied, nipples taped, toenails clipped. The usual.

My friend, Lisa, swung by to pick me up around 5am. (Sadly, a terrible case of blisters caused her to DNF at Leadville last year, but she's back at it; training again!) We chatted merrily away as we drove through the pre-dawn light, passing multiple herds of elk, on our way to BV. The land of warmth! The land of spring!

There was a huge contingent of folks from Leadville running the race this year. It was fun to say hi to many of them (and more!) before the start of the race. Everything felt very casual, relaxed, and unhurried. I made sure to stretch my hips. Then I lined up near the front of the pack at the starting line. I go out faster in this race more than any other I run because the course quickly drops to single track alongside the river before emerging out onto a paved road. The first year I ran it I ended up starting closer to the back, but that forced me to walk as traffic backed up entering the single track bottleneck.

Before the race, I felt my fitness was good. Surprisingly good, really. Probably better than any other year at this point in my training. I wasn't exactly sure why I was in such good shape, but I was fairly confident that a new PR was within my grasp if I could just execute. As far as my pacing strategy went, well... I knew that there were at least a few miles that I had battled nausea last year (roughly from miles 11-14) where I knew I could make up 5+ minutes. I also knew that in '12 I had intentionally taken the first 18 miles fairly easy (focusing on nutrition) so that I would have plenty of energy left to crank out the last 7 (where I had faded badly in '11). So, that meant that if I wasn't quite as conservative this year I'd probably gain a few more minutes in those first 18 miles. After that, I'd just try to run the last 3 miles as fast as I ran the first 3 miles and finish strong. After crunching the numbers and checking my gut, I told my wife to expect me to cross the finish line around the 4:20 mark. That would be almost a 15 minute improvement over my time from last year-- something I'd definitely be happy with. This would be my fourth running of the race, so I had a lot of historical data to work with when coming up with my estimate.

I had my splits from last year written on my forearm. My first goal: 27 minutes to the turn off before the tunnels. This stretch is mostly pavement, with two small hills. I pushed pretty hard during the first mile and then, glancing at my GPS, backed off a bit, saying to myself "Slow down, slow down... Take it easy...I'm in better shape this year, I shouldn't have to push at a higher perceived effort to achieve a PR. Just let it come to you." I made the turn at 24:48. Nice.

The next section of the trail to the first aid station went smoothly. Cursing, I had to stop and tie my shoe at one point, but no big deal. There is not much flat terrain in these miles and there are plenty of rollers-- some steep enough to cause most folks around me to drop to a hike. This is where course familiarity comes in handy. You can plan ahead for what's around the next bend, out of sight. I run all these hills in training, so that was my strategy during the race. I would just shorten up my stride and tip-toe up to the top. My goal for the hitting the first aid station was 1:00:00. I made it there in 56:23. My fingers were almost too cold to open my bag of maltodextrin, but I managed and within a few seconds I was off again. 310 calories down. Another 310 calories reloaded in my handheld.

The weather was beautiful and it started to warm up during the next stretch. I was feeling great. I hadn't run most of this next section in training as I typically cut it off and run a 20-mile version of the course. It's almost all uphill from mile 6 to mile 11.5 with some short, incredibly steep rollers at the end. I was debating whether or not to run them and hadn't really made up my mind beforehand. My ego got the best of me and I charged up all three. Now, I probably wasn't moving much faster than a strong power hike, but it was a psychological boost. I knew if I could run these, I would run the entire course. My goal from the second aid station: 2:02. I clocked in a 1:54. Now I was really starting to gain confidence. I hadn't really expected to make up this much time this early in the race. Awesome, awesome. 620 calories down.

The next 3-mile section is leg is almost all downhill, with some more rollers thrown in for good measure. This is the leg which went especially badly for me last year as I had gagged on a gel and then felt nauseated for a few miles. This year everything went smoothly and I cruised along enjoying the scenery and feeling incredibly excited about how my race was unfolding. I arrived at the next aid station at 2:21. I was now almost 20 minutes ahead of where I had been in '12! Even better, I had managed to consume another 310 calories during that short stretch, bringing my total up to 930. That represented the total number of calories I ate during the entire race last year! I was only at mile 14.5.

If you're not careful, miles 14.5-18 of the race can do some damage. It's all uphill, gaining about 300+ ft/mile for two of those miles. Very runnable if you're fresh, but it can be challenging if you haven't been fueling properly or if your legs are beginning to tire from all the rollers. I took it conservatively and let a group of runners I had been running with slip ahead a couple of hundred yards, but I still felt good. A solid effort, yet relaxed enough that I was able to continue to take gulps from my handheld, determined to empty it by the top of the climb. When I reached the top, I glanced at my watch: 3:01. I immediately choked up and swore under my breath. Seriously, I almost cried with joy. I had never expected to reach this point in the race this quickly. I had extended my lead on my former self by another 5 minutes. And from my recent training runs, I knew I could finish the course in approximately an hour-- if I didn't blow up. There were 7 miles to go and they were all downhill or flat. My calorie count now stood at 1240. I quickly emptied my last bag of maltodextrin and set off down the hill, telling myself "Relax, relax... Don't seize up. You've got this. Stay loose."

I had already run the final 7 miles of the course three times in training this year, so I was well prepared for what was to come. I tried not to do too much damage to my quads as I plunged downhill, running in the middle of the double track in hopes it would provide more cushioning. After a mile or so I passed a few of the runners that had gapped me on the climb. I hit the railroad grade single track and kept chugging along, trying to keep my pace steady. Around mile 22 I blew through the final aid station without stopping. I had about half a handheld left of my energy drink, which would be plenty for the final three miles. I could see another small group of runners ahead that had also started the climb with me at mile 14.5. I tried to use them as motivation as I maintained a 8:30 min/mile pace (which I knew was faster than I ran this section last year). The miles clicked by and slowly-- very slowly-- I reeled them in. Mile 24 is the most technical section of the entire course, as the trail switchbacks sharply down to the Arkansas River. I bombed down this section and quickly caught up with one of the runners, who I just barely managed to squeeze by at the top of a small roller. We were now crossing paths with the lead 50 mile racers headed in the other direction. (Hi Woody!) Then came the bridge across the river, the cheering spectators, and the final push to the finish. I ran the last quarter mile of the race at a 5:30 min/mile pace, gritting my teeth, and crossed the finish line in 4:02:22. Ecstatic and out of breath.

I finished so early, my family hadn't arrived yet! Eventually, with a big smile plastered on my face, I found them. I hung my finisher's medal around Sierra's neck and we sat down and enjoyed the beautiful sunshine and the comradery at the finish line, cheering as racers finished. Sierra played in the dirt. Ethan tried to eat rocks. Everyone was having fun. I was feeling fantastic and ate my entire lunch within a half an hour of finishing. No stomach issues at all-- not during the race, nor after it.

And my Leadville neighbors? Well, despite having the race of my life and setting a 32 minute PR, I still came in 15 minutes behind my dentist, Lance. (Yes, my dentist kicked my ass!) His wife, Michelle, crossed the finish line only 15 minutes after me, setting her own PR. We've trained and raced together frequently, and I think this is the first time I've ever managed to finish ahead of her in a race. She crushed the Leadville 100 in '10, finishing under 27 hours. And, of course, I came in 45 minutes later than my friend and regular pacer for the Leadville 100, Matt, a local history teacher who works with my wife at HMI. He had a ho-hum race and only came in 4th, 10 minutes slower than his 2nd place finish in '10. He is an incredible runner. Many more familiar faces crossed the finish line as we shouted encouragement. They all seemed to have smiles on their faces. So, after a leisurely second lunch at the Eddyline Brewery, we all piled back into our car and headed back home.

It was a fantastic-- dare I say perfect?-- day on many different levels. 

The Analysis

So, what the hell happened? I've been asking myself that question for a while now. I think what's so puzzling is that I've run this race four times now. If I had only run it once before, I could shrug it off saying, "Well, I guess I just had a bad day last year." But, it's not so simple. Here's are my mile splits from the race compared to last year:

That's a lot of green.

I ran every single mile faster than I did in '12. That is pretty awesome, but wait... Here's a table of my results over the years, next to how many miles I had trained from 1/1 to 4/30 for each year.

So, take the mileage numbers with a grain of salt, since the race occurred a week earlier in '12, but they should give a rough idea of how much I had been training each year. There's a big jump from '11 to '12, both in terms of results and training miles. Going into the race in '12, I knew I had trained more, so I was really expecting a PR. This year, well... I really hadn't trained that much more than last year. So why an even bigger improvement? That's what I've been puzzling about this week. I think it comes down to a combination of factors:

  1. 1 extra 20 mile run was simply due to the fact that the race took place a week later this year. I got that one for free. The second extra 20 miler was due to avoiding ITBS and staying injury-free. The third 20 miler, well... I think I was extra motivated to get in another long run in March because I knew I had my R2R2R attempt ahead of me in early April.
  2. It's only a 25 mile race. I'm sure you can run it just fine consuming "only" 900 calories. You've got 90 minutes of glycogen reserves and then 900 calories gives you another 3 hours to complete the race. 1500 calories was overkill, but I was purposefully trying to maintain an eating schedule that was appropriate for a 100-miler. The big difference between to two years was how I got the calories. This year it was effortless: just take a swig from my handheld. Absolutely no issues. Last year during the race I was juggling a gel flask, honey stinger waffles, homemade rice/egg/nut bars, and chews. I was trying to eat more solid food and, in retrospect, all the fiddling around was really slowing me down. Yes, I eventually managed to get 900 calories down, but I was constantly taking small bites, letting them dissolve in my cheek, trying not to gag (and failing). Liquid nutrition is so much easier.
  3. I think my lower body weight this year was the most surprising factor-- the one that I didn't fully appreciate the impact of ahead of time. Now, I'm usually around 175 by the time the 100 rolls around in August, but I think this is the first time I've had a body weight this low this early in the season. I guess eating a salad instead of potato chips, and eating only half a sub (instead of a full one) each day for lunch is having an effect. I also wonder if my more frequent, shorter runs are kicking my metabolism into a higher gear. I'm not precisely sure why I lost the weight, but I think it helped. A lot.
  4. Paying attention to shoe weight (and gear weight in general) is just an extension of paying attention to your body weight. Though I confess that I do come from a thru-hiking background, which inevitably causes you to obsess about gear weight. Ever since late March I've been running exclusively in a pair Montrail FluidFlexes. I really like 'em. They're as light as my minimalist NB MT110s, but they actually *gasp* have a comfortable, cushioned sole. They also share the same 4mm heel-to-toe drop, I believe. Oh, and they're about a half a pound lighter (per shoe!) than the Hokas I wore in '12.
  5. Finally, though it's not on the chart above, I do think my shorter, more frequent running schedule, combined with Leadville's snowy weather has encouraged me to run at least a few more faster miles than I usually would. The snow has pushed me off the trails and onto the roads around town. It's not uncommon for three miles of my usual six mile run to be right around an 8:00 min/mile pace. I think this hidden speed work (remember, I live at 10,000 ft) made it easier for me to cruise on the flats and gentle downhill sections of the CPTR course.
So, there ya have it. That's my best guess as to why I was able to make such an improvement this year. I'm sure there are some intangibles that I haven't accounted for, but I think those five points are the major factors.

I'm excited to see how this all plays out. I think it's easier to make bigger leaps in improvement earlier in the season and that your fitness tends to converge as your training continues, but who knows? My 4:02 represents an 11% improvement over my time from last year. Naturally, I couldn't resist seeing what an 11% improvement on 28:18 comes to... 25:11. You can dream, right?

It's 100 days until the Leadville 100.


  1. 4:02 - CRUSHED IT.
    Nice run and good perspective on the things that brought you there. Good omen for LT100.

  2. Nice run! And, man, you really think through this stuff. Amazing discipline.

  3. Way solid! Good seeing you out there as well!

  4. Thanks!

    And, Jim, I wouldn't call it "discipline", really... more like OCD. :)

  5. That was a heckuva run out there! Hope you're still relishing in your success.

    I'm right there with you on the fueling thing. I've heard ultras referred to as eating contests. He (or she) that can eat the most wins. Well, not quite - but I do believe that's probably the single most important skill to nail in one of these races. My #1 focus for the LT100 is eating (liquid calories) all day with no long breaks (10-15 min max).