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.