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...)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Quad Rock 50 Race Report

After my debacle at Collegiate Peaks, I paid special attention to recovering as well as I could before Quad Rock-- not just recovering from the race, but from my April training in general. I definitely didn't want to start another race-- especially a 50 miler-- with dead legs. I biked around Turquoise Lake on Sunday, took Monday off, ran an easy 6 miles on Tuesday on the Mineral Belt, took Wednesday off, ran an easy 3 miles on Thursday around the block, and then took Friday off. In one week I more than doubled the number of days I've taken off since the beginning of the year.

As far as goals for Quad Rock went, they were much looser and hand-wavy than my goals for Collegiate Peaks. The only historical data point I had for comparison was my 25 mile run in '12, Quad Rock's inaugural year. I finished that race in 5:17, which seemed about right for the halfway mark of the full 50. Given my modest ranking, Ultrasignup was predicting an 11:48 finish for me. But comparing the course to other 50 milers I've run recently (keyword: recently) I thought that was a bit too conservative.

The biggest unknown for me was really the timing of the race. The earliest 50 miler I've ever run is the San Juan Solstice 50 in mid-June. And I've really struggled each time I've run it. My normal 50 miler every year is the Silver Rush 50 in July. That's the timing I'm most familiar with. So, how would my body respond to running a 50 miler six weeks earlier than I ever have in my training cycle (and nine weeks earlier than I normally do)? I guess I was about to find out! I laughed to myself when I realized that Quad Rock-- in a single day-- would represent a quarter of my total mileage in April and about half of my total vertical!

The other consideration I factored in was that out of the seven 50 milers I've run in the past, I'd say all but one were severely limited by serious nutrition mistakes on my part. Historically, I've really struggled to consume enough calories during the 10+ hours it generally takes me to run 50 miles. However, I finally found a system that worked for me last year, and that has made a huge difference in longer races (i.e., 50's and 100's). So, assuming I could stick to my nutrition plan, I anticipated that I could run Quad Rock faster than my past results might suggest.

So, anyway... taking that all into consideration, and waffling back and forth a bit, I finally guessed that I might finish somewhere between 10.5 and 11 hours. Just my best guess. I would finish when I would finish. My primary goal was to take care of myself-- stay on top of my hydration and nutrition, and try not to kill myself on the downhills. It was going to be a long day of running. Enjoy it.

The Friday before the race, I drove down to my friend Alex's house in Louisville. We're both running Bighorn together in June, and we both signed up for Quad Rock as a training race. The last time we saw each was when I paced him at Run Rabbit Run last September. We enjoyed a quick dinner together, went to his son's t-ball practice, made some last minute preparations, and went to bed early-- our alarms set for the ungodly hour of 2:45am. That would give us just enough time to get dressed, make some coffee, eat a quick breakfast, and drive up to Ft. Collins for the race. I remembered feeling rushed at the starting line in '12, so I didn't want that to happen again.

When we arrived, we were just about to park in a long line of cars about a third of a mile from the start, when someone noticed we had carpooled and directed us to a closer parking lot-- much closer! We ended up parking about 30 ft from the starting line. Sweet! Donning our headlamps in the pre-dawn darkness, we went about our final preparations.

We wished each other good luck, and as the sun finally rose we all took off.

They've re-routed the start of the race so that you stay on the dirt road much longer before hitting the single track. This is definitely a good thing. It made it much easier to spread out and find a good pace. As I ran the initial rolling miles, I was very relieved to feel my legs respond. There was no obvious fatigue like the soreness/tightness that was immediately obvious at the start of Collegiate Peaks. However, temperature-wise, I was much too comfortable at the starting line and, as soon as the sun peeked over the eastern hills, I started becoming too warm. Before the initial climb began, I pulled off the trail and took a minute to take off all my extra layers and throw them in my pack. (I'd eventually dump them in my drop bag.)

The first ascent up to the Towers aid station went well. I slowly jogged the whole thing, moving up many places, passing folks who were hiking. On a few of the steeper sections, my legs actually burned from the effort, which is a rarity for me as Leadville's lack of oxygen is usually my limiting factor! Still, I didn't feel like I was pushing too hard. I had memorized some of my splits from '12 and I knew I was already ahead of my former self by the first aid station.

By the time I had dropped down to the Horsetooth aid station, I had gained yet more time. Everything was going great. However, I had to make one more visit to the bathroom. I ended up waiting in line for what seemed like an eternity. Ah, well... Enforced rest, I guess. I picked up more fuel, refilled my bottles, and headed up the next climb.

My oh-so-fashionable shirt got a lot of comments!
Up, down, refuel, up, down, up, down, refuel, up, down, up, down, refuel, up, down, finish.

And that's pretty much how the day went!

After 11 hours and 6 minutes, I sprinted across the finish line to cheers of "It's the J Crew guy! Yeah!" I certainly felt fatigued, but I was happy. It was a solid race-- and a solid workout, for sure. My legs were toast, but I kept my stomach under control the entire day. It was definitely the longest I've ever been able to run without any stomach issues at all. A victory for me.

The weather was perfect. It started out sunny and cool in the morning and never really got hot as the clouds moved in in the afternoon. It spat rain a few times, and the wind picked up briefly, but I never had to battle the heat. Just to be safe, I dumped water on myself a few times, and dunked my hat in a few streams as a precaution.

I hit the turnaround at 5:02, a 15 minute PR over my previous time for the 25 mile race. I jogged every step of the course until mile 32 or so and then I started mixing in hiking on some of the steeper sections. While the uphills were definitely tough and unrelenting, I felt stronger on them than I did on the downhills later in the race. On the final two descents my quads were screaming. This was definitely way more downhill running than I had ever done in training so far this year. I'm guessing that mashing big gears on my bike trainer has helped build my uphill strength some, but has done nothing for my downhill strength. It's become probably my primary training goal for the next few weeks-- hit the downhills hard to prepare for Bighorn.

My stomach felt solid throughout the day. I constantly tried to strike a good balance between water and calories. I'd often carry one bottle of pure water and another bottle of energy drink and alternate between the two, using the water to flush my stomach out if I ever felt full. I'm convinced that most of my past bouts of nausea have been caused by dehydration. A few times during the race, usually while on a downhill, I did get a side stitch. I took that as a sign that I was falling behind on hydration, and I'd try to drink more water, while jabbing my other bottle into my diaphragm to relieve the pain. All told, I consumed approximately 3,360 calories during the race (10.5 320 calorie bags of energy drink mix). That's about perfect for my body weight and finishing time.

The slower 50 mile pace allowed for lots of friendly conversations during the race. It was great to meet folks and pass the time chatting as we fought the hills together. Despite the grey weather, the post race festivities were great. I scarfed down multiple hamburgers and enjoyed the complementary beer. One of the best signs that you've fueled properly during a race is how quickly you can eat a normal meal afterwords.

While ideally I would've liked to have not have slowed down quite so much during the second half of the race, I feel like I can't complain too much. I felt good out there. Certainly not overwhelmed by the distance. I keep coming back to the word "solid". You know things have gone pretty well if that's the adjective that keeps popping into your head.

Next up: the Sage Burner 50K. It'll be the fifth time I've run it, and I have a score to settle with the course. It's time to recover as best I can, and hopefully time for a little redemption!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Collegiate Peaks Race Report

A quick report on my CPTR 25 experience this year. It's short on narrative flourish, but hopefully captures some of the details of the event.

The weather on race day was beautiful. Probably the warmest day of the year so far. While I imagine the 50 milers might have suffered a bit in the afternoon heat, for the 25 milers it was perfect. I was excited to race and soaked up the energy at the starting line. Before I knew it, we were off.

Within the first mile of the race I found myself uttering, "Uh, oh... Oh, crap!"

My legs felt strangely tight/sore during the first 3 paved, flat miles. Mostly my calves, but also my legs in general. Still, I made it to the turn at mile 3 on PR pace. Next came a rolling, single track section. I didn't obsessively check my GPS between aid stations, but instead ran by feel. I was only 1 minute back at the first aid station at mile 6. Certainly not time to panic yet, but I knew I wasn’t really feelin’ it. For some reason, I hadn’t recovered fully during the week leading up to the race. Why were my legs so unresponsive?

The next 4 mile uphill section would be a test. I tried to stay positive and not succumb to any negative self-fulfilling thoughts. Unfortunately, I slipped to 4 minutes down at the second aid station. Not good. I wasn’t really passing anyone on the uphills. My last hope for a PR was to try to make up some time on the downhills, but all I could do was maintain my pace-- barely. The 7:30 min/miles I was hoping for were not happening. I was still about 4 minutes down at the base of the final uphill. Could I push harder up Lenhardy Hill than I did last year? Doubtful. I honestly thought the best I could do was to maybe stay on pace. Nope, not even that. I was down 9 minutes at mile 18 at the top. A PR just wasn't happening today. There was no way I could make up 9 minutes in the final 7 miles-- certainly not with the way my legs were feeling. Dammit. Ah, well...

At that point, I gave up trying to PR. I switched modes to "just get ‘er done" and stopped chasing splits. I passed a couple of blown up people in the final miles, but nobody that was really running. I chatted with Adrian S. (who I recognized from the Silver Rush 50 and Sage Burner 50K last year) for the last 3 miles. He was running the 50 today. I settled into a relaxed 50-mile pace with him and took it easy to the finish. It was nice to be able to pass the time chatting with someone. Finally, I jogged across the finish line, down 14 minutes from last year. 4:16. I didn’t even bother trying to squeak in ahead of the racer in front of me. I had no desire to pass. I had stopped racing miles ago.

If I had kept pushing for the full 25 miles, maybe I could’ve finished only 10 minutes back from my PR... I just couldn't motivate with my legs feeling like they did. I'd like to think that I'd be more willing to push through leg soreness that arose during the race itself, but pre-existing leg pain due to inadequate recovery? Not so much. I don’t think I really made any mistakes during the race, I just hadn’t recovered fully. Not enough rest during the final week. I think my high-cadence bike workout on Monday really worked my calves in a way that they're not used to. Then I simply slogged up and down the Boulevard a bit too much-- trying to get 200 miles for April. Trying to keep the daily training streak going. I should’ve skipped some days if I really wanted to race fresh. Basically, my race this year felt like a ho-hum training run. Fine, but not great. If I hadn't been racing I probably would’ve stopped a dozen times and rested and soaked up the views. My energy levels were fine, but my legs had no pop.

Of course, I never fully taper for any non-focus race like CPTR, so I don't expect to be at 100%, but-- superficially, at least-- my mileage for the week leading up to the race was the same as last year. That's all I was hoping for: to make it to the starting line as rested as I had been previously in '13.

In hindsight, I really think I pulled off something special last year when I set my PR of 4:02. I really raced the course, and as I kept beating my past splits I got more and more excited and motivated and really kept up the intensity. Having people to chase was great, too. There was a small group of runners that I hung with throughout the race in '13. This year, I tried to keep my spirits up and enjoy the race, but eventually I knew a PR wasn’t going to happen. There was no desire to hurt more than necessary. Thoughts of conserving myself for the Quad Rock 50 the following week crossed my mind. I was actually fairly comfortable on the uphills, but the lack of “pop” slowed me down ~1 min/mile. I just slowly jogged uphill, losing some distance on folks-- not that much, but enough that I noticed it. I’d actually close gaps on the super steep sections when people dropped to a hike. I did manage to run the entire course again, never resorting to a power hike.

Ironically, I finished in 46th place-- the exact same place I finished last year, despite being 14 minutes faster.

Not so much green. I had no uphill legs (miles 4, 9, 10, 16, 17, 18). Stopped chasing my former self at mile 18.

After looking over my training data from last year again, it’s interesting to note that I had a lot of “blah” training runs after CPTR last year. CPTR was really the only long run I nailed in May '13. My average pace on all my other May training runs (which all had roughly equivalent vertical) was about 1-2 minutes slower per mile. So, maybe I just hit that “blah” period a little earlier this year because of the extra miles/long runs I’ve been running? However, even if I had started the race totally fresh this year, I bet I could have done no better than, say, 3:55.

My extra training this year has put me in a good place, but not one that’s radically different.

I knew it would be difficult, but not setting a new PR this year was a little tough to swallow. I thought I was fit enough-- and that I had recovered enough-- to have a chance, but apparently I was wrong.

Well, I know of no better remedy for a disappointing race than to get back out there and race again! I'm looking forward to the Quad Rock 50 next weekend. While certainly more epic, I think it will also be more low stress. I've never run the full 50 mile distance before, so I won't be obsessing over splits. Plus, the longer distance will make the race more about taking care of yourself throughout the day.

Despite no PR, I still had a lot of fun at Collegiate Peaks this year. It's always a great race. And, hey-- it was my second fastest time ever! My wife and kids joined me at the finish line. I got to say hi to a lot of running friends and catch up with various folks. The weather was truly beautiful. Afterwards, the kids and I played in the ice cold stream while mama went off for a run by herself. It was good to relax and enjoy a lovely spring day in Buena Vista with my family. I topped it off with a giant blackberry shake at K's. A classic.