Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Just Around the Corner: Wasatch 2014


The Wasatch 100 was my first 100 mile race back in 2009, so it will always be special for me.  That first year was all about finishing.  The last 2 attempts have been in search (in vain) of that elusive sub 30 hour finish and the turquoise buckle that would come with such a feat.  When I found out I had been accepted into the 2014 running (if only my attempts to get into Hardrock were as successful as my Wasatch lotteries have been), I immediately started thinking about what it would take to break 30 hours.  I changed the background on my phone to a picture of the sub 30 buckle (cheesy, but I needed to see what I would be working towards over the next 6+ months).  I started doing more hill training, with the key difference this year being I was running most of the hills instead of power hiking them.  I’ve made the mistake in the past of hiking many hills in training, rationalizing this in my head by noting that I wouldn’t be running too many hills in the race.  This was a mistake, so I forced myself to run as many hills as I could.  The more I ran them, the stronger I got.  The stronger I got on hills, the easier all other aspects of my running became.  I hit the gym once a week, focusing on lunges, squats, and other movements that would strengthen my legs.  I took several trips to the Guadalupe Mountains in West Texas and 2 more trips out West in the summer.  Although I logged some miles in the mountains, I wasn’t feeling particularly strong until I ran the Siskyou Out and Back 50K in Ashland, OR in late July.  At the race (and in the weeks afterwards), things seemed to click.  Prior to the race, I hadn’t logged a ton of running miles, doing more hiking in the mountains and enjoying the cooler weather.  The SOB 50K convinced me that I was doing the right thing and was almost ready.  The Telluride Mountain Run sealed the deal for me mentally.  I was psyched to run Wasatch, more pumped than I’ve ever been for any race.  With 3 finishes under my belt, I knew what to expect and was confident that my course knowledge and training would put me in a good position to earn that turquoise buckle. 
We arrived in Salt Lake City on Thursday afternoon feeling healthy and rested (2 years ago I arrived and ran with the flu – not fun).  I met Larry (he was running the “fun run” of 53 miles) and one of my pacers, Joe T and his girlfriend Kris, who would help Cindy with the crewing duties.  After depositing my drop bags, I checked in, listened to the 8 minute race briefing, and grabbed a bite to eat (and one of the best oatmeal stouts I’ve ever had) before heading to Park City to check into our hotel.  I always prefer to stay in the heart of the mountains versus the city if possible, and Park City is the perfect place to do just that.  I made some last minute preparations, set my alarm for 2AM, and crawled in bed for a few hours of sleep.  

(Legendary Dinner)

At 2AM, I heated up my breakfast (sweet potatoes, bacon, and eggs, and threw on a pot of coffee for the drive to the start.  We picked up Larry at Lamb’s Canyon (he was extra excited to be up so early to accommodate my pre-race “rituals”) and headed north to the start line, where we would begin our adventure at 5AM.  Aside from Larry stepping in a huge pile of stinking poop (not mine), nothing too exciting happened as runners milled about the parking lot awaiting the RD to send us off into the Wasatch Mountains.  I normally set 3 time goals for a race, and this year was no different.  My “A” goal was to break 30 hours, my “B” goal was to PR (needed to break 33:31 to do that), and my “C” goal was just to finish.  To accomplish these goals, I set several other goals, such as trying to limit my total time in aid stations to no more than an hour (I spent over 2.5 hours stopped at aid stations when I had the flu in 2012), not puking (this would be a major accomplishment for me in a 100 mile race), and pushing through the pain in an attempt to run as comfortably hard as I could, even when it hurt to do so.  Right at 5AM, 320 runners set off into the dark morning.

(Larry and I at the Start)

The first few miles of Wasatch are on nice rolling singletrack trails, making it a good warmup for the legs but difficult to navigate the conga line of runners that stacks up as the trail narrows.  The air was cool and cloudy, and I started in shorts and my standard race shirt, a plaid button-down.  As runners kicked up dust on the trail, I settled into a nice slow trot for the early miles.  As we wound our way across the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, we could see the lights of the still sleeping city below.  After 5+ miles of rolling terrain, the trail began to climb as we hit the first (and longest) ascent on the course, a 4500’ grind up to the summit of Chinscraper, about 6 miles away.  I nursed my bottles of Carbo Pro/Skratch mix, intending to drink one bottle an hour until I ran out or got hungry.  I had enough stashed in drop bags to last at least 15 hours.  With the first aid station over 18 miles away from the start, I would carry 4 bottles on the climb.  Having spent several weeks in the mountains over the summer, I was confident in my ability to hike uphill quickly, and the climb up Chinscraper felt very easy.  I found myself getting a bit frustrated with how slowly the pack was moving.  On the rare occasion the trail offered a place to pass, I would dart ahead of 6-8 other runners, still trying to keep things easy and relaxed.  I must have passed 25-30 people on the last few miles of the climb, and soon I was scrambling over the top to the summit, which offered beautiful views (despite the light rain that was now falling) of the Great Salt Lake and urban sprawl below.  The next several miles would take us across the first of many ridges we would traverse in the race, then spit us out on a jeep road where we would descend several thousand feet to the first aid station at Francis Peak.  Wanting to push myself, but not wanting to trash my legs on the first downhill of the day, I was happy to settle into a comfortable pace and chat with a local named Dodge.  I arrived at Francis Peak and grabbed 4 fresh bottles of CP/Skratch from my drop bag, filling 2 with water and stuffing the other 2 into my Ultimate Direction pack.  In just under 2 minutes, I was headed out.  

(Looking Back Down Final Climb Up Chinscraper)

(View of Salt Lake From Chinscraper Sumit)

(Typical Wasatch Terrain)

In years past, I have had to jog/walk much of the road leading out of the Francis Peak AS, but this year I was determined to run every step until I hit the next climb.  In doing so, I managed to pass several people, something that usually doesn’t happen for me on flat stretches.  After a couple miles of undulating road, we turned off onto our next ascent, where I passed a few more people before veering onto the singletrack.  I dipped my visor in the cool mountain stream and began the short but steep grunt up to the Bountiful B aid station at mile 24.  I told myself that I wouldn’t compare my actual time to the projected 30 hour splits until I reached Big Mountain at mile 39, so I quickly filled 2 bottles of CP/Skratch and trotted out of the Bountiful in under 2 minutes. 
The next few miles leading to the Sessions aid station would be mostly “flat” jeep road and then a downhill into the aid station itself.  I was enjoying the cool air and cloud cover as I hiked/ran across the beautiful terrain.  As I was cresting a hill, I noticed a guy sitting in what looked like a recliner on the side of the trail.  As I got closer, I realized that he was indeed sitting in a recliner, which was on top of carpet and next to a full bookcase and lamp.  It was as if he had transported his entire living room to the top of the mountain.  As I passed, he said hello and acted like it was perfectly normal to see this in the middle of nowhere.  As I stopped to adjust the laces on my shoe, another runner passed by and said we should be at the aid station within 10 minutes.  I thought we had at least 2 miles to go, so this guy had to be wrong.  Sure enough, as I topped out on the next hill I saw the aid station buried in the trees below.  Just as the guy said, we were there in less than 10 minutes.  I was feeling great, the weather was perfect, and things couldn’t have been better.  I knew the next section was a bit longer and had given me trouble in the past (I had puked on this section in each of my previous 3 Wasatch finishes), so I took a 3rd bottle so I could stay on top of my hydration.  2 bottles of mix and one of water should be plenty I told myself.  I thanked the volunteers and headed out, again taking 2 minutes.
As I climbed out of the Sessions aid station, a cool breeze blew in, and we entered a shady forested section of pristine singletrack.  I was pleased with how things were going, knowing I was almost 30 miles into the race and would picking up my first pacer (Joe T) at mile 39.  I took a sip of CP/Skratch.  Life was good.  Then it happened…I puked.  5 times.  Everything I had consumed in the past hour+ was now on the side of the trail.  A couple runners passed and asked if I needed anything.  Discouraged, I was prepared for this (I was now 4 for 4 in puking on this section, so I shouldn’t have been surprised) and was determined not to let this misfortune derail my plans of breaking 30 hours.  I felt much better now, but I was weak and sluggish as I became dehydrated and in a caloric deficit.  The next 6 miles were brutal, marked by another steep climb and several rocky descents.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to consume any more CP/Skratch mix (I made it 7 hours), so I nursed my one bottle of water for the next 2 hours as I slowly made my way to the Swallow Rocks aid station.  I knew I needed calories, so I ate a bag of Honey Stinger chews, which seemed to help.  I must have been passed by 30 people in this stretch, but I knew it would get better once I got fluids and calories in me.  I had spent nearly 20 minutes at Swallow Rocks in 2012 contemplating dropping.  I vowed not to let the same happen this year.  Nearly 9 hours after starting, I arrived at Swallow Rocks (mile 34.6).  I chugged a bottle of ice cold water, guzzled a cup of Coke, and scarfed down some much needed calories before heading out with a bottle of water and another of Gu Roctane brew. 
I almost instantly felt better now that I had some calories in me and my stomach had settled down.  Knowing the first couple miles were uphill out of the aid station, I settled into a fast hike and even managed to pass a few people who had passed me when I was struggling.  This gave me a mental boost, so I decided to ride this high and put on some music.  When Skid Row’s “18 and Life” came on my iPod, I smiled and started to run.  The middle of this stretch of the race took me through a forest full of aspen trees, then a beautiful meadow, followed by 2 miles of screamingly fast singletrack leading into the Big Mountain aid station.  I felt awesome, managing to click off a couple miles in a low 7 minute pace.  I knew my crew and pacers would be there with a new pack and fresh bottles, so I ran as hard as I could into the aid station.  I glanced at my watch and saw that I was 1:45 ahead of my projected 30 hour pace.  I wasn’t intentionally trying to bank time, but rather was running on feel and trying to push the pace when I could.  I knew that if I ran hard when my body allowed, I would be setting myself up to give a go at a sub 30 finish.  I dropped off my pack, stepped on the scale (down only 2 pounds), and grabbed my new pack and bottles.  I normally spend at least 5 minutes at this aid station, but Joe and I left after only 2.  

(Leaving Big Mountain)
 
Having Joe pace me was a huge boost.  He has a condo in nearby Ogden, so he is familiar with the terrain we would be covering.  We hiked up the initial climb out of the aid station while I took in some calories, passing a few people along the way.  At the crest of the big climb, we were treated to views in all directions as we ran along the ridge of the Wasatch Crest.  The thing that struck me was the colors of the trees, ranging from bright orange to yellow and varying shades of green.  Fall had already arrived in the Wasatch, and the cool air and falling leaves made for some great running.  I hiked most anything that went up and ran the flats mostly on ridges and through groves of aspen trees) and all the downhills.  Just over 8 miles after we left Big Mountain, Joe and I descended down the rocky terrain into the Alexander Ridge aid station.  This section took less than 2 hours, a good bit faster than any of my previous finishes.  The volunteers at Alexander Ridge always dress up, and this year they were barnyard animals.  I fueled up with Coke and Gu Roctane and headed out.

(Huge Views)

The weather had been perfect all day, but this next stretch would see the emergence of the sun, which baked my neck as we made our way across an exposed section near an oil pipeline.  Still, this was way better than I had expected, so I stayed on top of my hydration and ran when I could.  Soon we were heading back into the trees for a short (I had remembered this climb as much longer and told Joe we were in for a tough one) climb.  Once we popped out of the trees, we were treated with views of the highway below and Lamb’s Canyon aid station below.  The first time I ran Wasatch, this section had played mind games with me.  The trail goes past the aid station, then turns and goes back by it, only to turn once more and pass it yet again.  After a proper bushwhack through trees and muddy muck, you can hear and see the crews cheering runners on.  I had never arrived at Lamb’s this early in the race, and I felt great.  I saw Rachel (she had just flown in from Chicago and would be pacing me from mile 75 to the finish), Cindy, and Kris, and they quickly grabbed my pack and switched out new gear as I weighed in (down 9 pounds but still within the acceptable range of gain/loss) and grabbed a few calories.  I had traditionally spent 10-15 minutes at Lamb’s, but I was out in only 5 this year, sticking to my plan to make up time at aid stations.

I walked up the paved road as I down a bottle of Ultragen, topping off my calorie stores.  I felt pretty good and was able to hike at a decent pace the 2 miles to the bottom of the Lamb’s Canyon trailhead where I would jump onto a section of singletrack that would take me up 1500’ in 2 miles to Bear Bottom Pass and then down the other side to Millcreek Road.  After only a couple minutes, I pulled out a bottle of Gatorade to take a sip and almost immediately started throwing up on the side of the trail.  Great, not again!  This continued for a couple minutes until I was able to gather myself and head back up the trail.  A few minutes later I looked behind me and didn’t see Joe.  He caught up shortly and told me he was having some issues with the altitude and that I could go ahead if I needed to.  Around this time we passed a race volunteer who had a bunch of race flagging in his hands.  He informed us that someone had pulled markers and sabotaged part of the trail.  This is never good, as it puts people’s safety (and their possibility of finishing) at risk.  As we climbed, the trail bent to the left, and I started second guessing myself, sure that we should be heading right.  I stopped, yelled back to Joe that I thought we might be headed the wrong direction, and eventually turned around and headed back down the trail.  Luckily we ran into a couple more runners who assure me that we were on the correct trail and that we would eventually bear right and head toward the pass.  Sure enough, we topped out at the pass and found the familiar trail down to Millcreek Road.  Although my legs were getting sore, I was able to jog most of the downhill, following the 2 other runners with Joe on my heels.  We hit the paved road and turned left, heading up a gradual 3 mile climb to Millcreek aid station at mile 61+.  The grade was just steeper than what I could run at the moment, but I was able to stretch my legs out and hike past several runners as the final rays of light set over the mountain, leaving us in darkness as we entered the aid station.  This aid station had always been one of the coldest on the course, so I grabbed a light jacket, arm sleeves, and gloves before grazing at the food table.  Joe made his way to the table and informed me that the altitude was slowing him down and that he was going to catch a ride to Brighton and meet me there.  I knew the next 13 mile stretch had some steep climbs, but I was feeling good and knew I’d be fine.  I thanked him for his help (he pushed me faster than I would have gone solo) and trotted out of the aid station.
Once on the trail again, I fixed my headlamp and grabbed my iPod, knowing my music would drown out any noises that might spook me in the woods.  I later learned that several moose had been spotted on this trail, but I never saw any.  I quickly warmed up on the climb, forcing me to take off my arm sleeves to cool down.  I passed a few day hikers/spectators who were coming in for the night, but otherwise the trail was very quiet and lonely, just perfect.  The climb out was longer but more gradual than the steep one coming out of Lamb’s Canyon, so I was able to settle into a nice consistent rhythm.  About an hour and forty minutes after I left Millcreek, I reached the aid station and campfires at Desolation Lake (mile 66), where I topped off my water and Coke and grabbed a handful of snack off the table before walking out with a cup of hot mashed potatoes. 
As I was making my way up the next climb, I wondered if I had remembered to check out of the last aid station (I hadn’t).  Oh well, no big deal if I hadn’t (the results list me as being at Desolation Lake for 10 minutes, but in reality it was closer to 2).  The short steep climb out of Desolation Lake to the ridge was relatively painless, and the clear views of the cities below and stars above made it all worthwhile.  Life was good.   I made my way across the ridge and could make out the next aid station off in the distance.  In previous years I had found myself hunkered down in this aid station trying to cram down calories and stay warm, but this year I was determined to get what I needed and get out.  I arrived at Scotts Peak aid station a little over an hour after leaving Desolation Lake, topped off my fluids and took off around the bend.
The first half mile out of the aid station is flat/slightly uphill, but the next couple miles drop down a bumpy and rocky jeep road.  My legs weren’t fresh, but I could still run, so I cranked up my tunes and let gravity do the rest.  After a couple miles of this, the road turns to a paved stretch that ultimately leads to Brighton Ski Lodge, where my crew would be waiting to assist me for the final time before the finish.  Joe had mentioned that he was going to try to head back towards me from Brighton if he managed to find a ride, so when I saw a shadowy figure approaching me, I yelled out, “hey Joe!”.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t Joe and my excitement was met only by bewildered stares from the stranger I had mistaken as Joe T.  After another couple minutes I saw 2 lights approaching.  Learning from my previous mistake, I said nothing to these 2 mysterious runners heading towards me, but as I got closer I realized it was Joe and Rachel, who had come to lead me into Brighton.  I was happy to see them and recounted my last few hours on the trail as we ran (and walked) into Brighton.  I have spent close to 30 minutes here in the past, fueling up and changing clothes, but this year I managed to cut it to 9, taking only enough time to use the restroom and eat breakfast (those were some of the best eggs and hash browns I’ve had).  To make life even better, I washed this meal down with a couple cups of Sunny Delight.  So good.  Feeling satisfied, Rachel and I headed out of the lodge and back onto the trail, where we would begin climbing to the highest point on the course at over 10,400’.

 (Beautiful Sunset)

 (Bright Lodge Aid Station - Mile 75)

The last 25 miles of Wasatch is generally filled with plenty pain and soreness, and this year was no different.  The climb up to Point Supreme was brutal, but the descent may have been worse.  My toes had been bothering me a bit up to this point, but the pain grew more intense as I kicked what felt like every single rock on the way down the backside to Ants Knoll aid station.  Little did I know that I was running somewhere near 40th place at this point, over 75 miles in.  I had never made it this far in the dark, and I still had several hours to go before sunrise.  I grabbed solid food at Ants Knoll and made my way up the Grunt, a short but very steep ascent.  Down to Pole Line Pass and out we went.  I wasn’t able to run any of this.  My quads were shot, and my toes were on fire.  I felt like both big toenails had been ripped off.  I struggled along, and although my energy was decent, my legs wouldn’t allow me to move very fast.  I was still way ahead of projected pace and knew that I had a legitimate shot at breaking 30, the first time I’d truly allowed myself to think about that.  Rachel was awesome, keeping me entertained and my mind off the pain.  The last 12 miles were different than in pervious years, as the Park Service was doing some serious maintenance on several sections.  The end result was a slightly easier finish, although I wasn’t able to fully take advantage of it.  Each time I tried to run, my quads or toes would make me stop.  I was passed by 30-40 runners in the last 25 miles, but my focus was not on them, rather on breaking 30.  That had been my singular focus for the past 6 months and I wasn’t going to let anything deter me now.  Sometime after my 90th mile, we switched off our headlamps, and I began to feel the end coming.  The last 6 miles wound around and above a reservoir, keeping the finish line constantly out of sight.  Rachel and I kept thinking that it must be “around that next corner”, but each corner only brought another corner.  After what felt lie an eternity, we saw the trail drop down to the road, only to find we still had a long stretch (it seemed long anyway) of pavement to the finish.  Cindy and Joe met us on the road, and I waddled the last few yards across the line in 28:20, a PR by over 5 hours and good enough for 81st place.  I sat in a chair and gingerly examined my toes, which were the worst they’ve ever been after a race.  They would remain bruised (and infected) for nearly 2 weeks after the race, and I lost both big toenails, but it was more than worth it.  I had achieved what I set out to do.  

 (Late In the Race)

 (Mt. Timp Looming Over the Course)

 (Finally Under 30 Hours)

3 weeks have passed since I finished, and I am still thrilled with how things played out.  Other than some soreness that lasted a few days and the gnarliest toes I’ve personally experienced, the biggest imprint Wasatch left on me was the mental confidence that I can run 100 miles in the mountains faster than I had previously thought.  As a consequence, I am totally redefining my own running goals.  I can’t wait to get back into serious training for Bandera, and Wasatch has given me the confidence to attack that training with even more vigor.  Chris Russell asked me the day I finished if I was done with Wasatch for a while now that I have accomplished my goal of breaking 30.  At first I told him I was, but after a few days that all changed.  I’ll be back, sooner than later.  My new goal is 10 finishes and that coveted ring.  I can't thank my pacers and crew enough.  Without them there is no way I would have been able to keep my aid station stops to only 57 minutes.  They were awesome.  Next up - Hardrock lottery!

(Ouch)

(Dinner In Park City With Rachel and Larry)

(Sub 30 Buckle and Finisher's Plaque)






Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Georgia Death Race - Part 2


The climb out was relentless, and I knew what was coming since we had just descended this same trail.  It was uplifting to see other runners headed by me down to the aid station.  I grunted up to the top, waved at the volunteer, and tried to chase down a couple guys in front of me.  It was getting warm, and the sun was taking its toll on my legs.  I repeated the process of catching people on climbs only to be passed by them on the downhills.  Everything felt good until I was less than a mile from the next aid station.  I began to feel that all too familiar feeling in my gut, and soon everything I had consumed over the previous few hours was deposited on the side of the trail.  This continued several more times until I had northing left to sacrifice to the trail gods.  Feeling better (but devoid of calories), I jogged into the Point Bravo (mile 28) aid station, the largest station on the course.  Since my stomach wasn’t feeling great, I opted for only one bottle of Skratch/Carbo Pro, choosing to fill my other bottle with watered down Coke. 
I repeated this process for the next 17 miles, though I did manage to keep from puking in this stretch.  The climbs were tough, the descents even tougher.  I was in survival mode, nursing my Coke and water between aid stations, trying to ingest any calories I could.  A few miles from the Winding Stair Gap aid station (mile 45), where I would meet Doug and pick up Rebecca as my pacer, we emerged from the woods onto a rough jeep road.  There was a creek on one side and rock walls on the other.  As a bonus treat, there was the occasional spring cascading down from a crevice in the rocks.  I took full advantage of these and would stop to soak my visor and neck under the refreshingly cold water.  I ran these miles with a local guy who kept me entertained (or frightened) with tales of his training runs in the area in which he would encounter rattlesnakes, copperheads, and even an angry mother bear with her cubs.  This helped pass the time, and soon I had arrived at the aid station and saw Doug and Rebecca waiting for me.
Rebecca would pace me the next 8 miles, and Doug would pace the final 9, 11, or 15 miles (depending on who you believed about the final race distance).  Sean had told us that the stretch from Winding Stair Gap to the finish would be mostly downhill road (gravel) running.  My legs were sore, and my mind didn’t want to run, but I didn’t want Rebecca to come all this way to simply hike 8 miles, so we started to trot out of the aid station and soon caught the local guy I had been running with earlier.  It was nice to catch up with Rebecca, and the conversation helped take my mind off the pain shooting through my legs.  We certainly weren’t setting any speed records, but we did manage to keep a sub 9 minute pace (fast for at this point in the race) for most of the downhill section.  I continued to drink Coke and water, which seemed to be working for the most part.  I had mentioned to Rebecca that I had a friend from San Antonio (John Sharp) running somewhere ahead of me.  After I described what he looked like, she laughed and said, “We saw him come through the aid station.  Everyone was talking about him.  He was loud and made quite an impression”.  Yep, that’s John.  Soon we all hit the Jake Bull aid station (mile 53), where I would drop Rebecca off and pick up Doug. 
As Doug and I left the aid station, I picked up a couple white chocolate macadamia nut cookies.  They tasted great, and I could feel my energy return almost immediately.  We hit a short section of singletrack, and I picked up the pace.  Doug even commented how fast I was running for this stage of the race.  I felt great!  We talked about how my mom “blames” Doug for getting me into running.  Yes, Doug ran a marathon before I did, but he never steered me down the path of ultras.  He is a talented runner who has turned in some fast road marathon times and just completed his first trail ultra this past fall.  The nice singletrack soon gave way to a paved road, and almost instantly my stomach revolted.  I told Doug that I needed to pull off to the side to toss my cookies (literally), much to the surprise and enjoyment of two little boys who happened to be riding their bikes past us as I was puking.  They thought it was hilarious.  I didn’t think it was as funny, but couldn’t help but laugh anyway.  The surrounding area we were running across reminded me off the movie Deliverance (insert banjo joke here).  As much as I wanted to run, my stomach said no.  After a few more miles of paved road, we hit a dirt road that would take us up the last (big) climb of the course.  We switched on our lights and trudged up the road.  As bad as I felt, we never once heard another runner or had anyone pass us.  This race was tough on everybody.  Finally, we hit the last aid station, Nimblewill (mile 61), where as sign greeted us that we had 7 miles to the finish (guess the race really was 68 miles long).   As I grazed through the aid station food, my eyes lit up as I saw a blast from my childhood past, Bagel Bites.  I hadn’t eaten one of these in nearly 20 years.  With only 7 miles to go, I figured it couldn’t hurt.  Boy did they taste good.
After consuming at least 7-8 of these little gems, I took my bottle of Coke and water and set off for the final stretch.  The next 7 miles were relatively uneventful (no puking or banjo sounds in the woods), and I had a ton of fun re-living old stories with Doug from our high school days.  We had 5 miles of road and then a nasty descent down from the top of Amicola Falls to the finish.  17 hours and 11 minutes after I began the Georgia Death Race, I crossed the finish line – alive.  Sean handed me my railroad spike for finishing, 30th overall out of 111 finishers.  I was happy with how things had played out and was glad Doug and Rebecca were there.  They had picked up my rental car from the start (over 2 hours away) and driven it to the finish.  I had planned on taking a shuttle bus back to my car and sleeping a few hours in the back before driving back to Memphis, but they drove it back to Atlanta to their house, where I enjoyed a hot shower and a decent night’s sleep in a real bed. 
Aside from the puking, I had a great experience at this race.  The course was brutal, which I loved.  The volunteers were superb.  I would highly recommend checking it out.  Sean has reportedly found more climbs and added extra vertical for the 2015 version, advertising 40K of total elevation change.  Then again, who knows how many miles or how much vertical there really will be.  That’s all part of the mystery and allure of the Georgia Death Race.



           

Friday, March 28, 2014

Tempting Death In Georgia - Part One

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            I first met Sean “Run Bum” Blanton last summer before a race around the Eiger in Switzerland.  We talked for awhile as we ran the first few miles of one of the toughest races I’d ever run, and he kept telling me about a race he puts on in the mountains of northern Georgia called the Georgia Death Race.  Any race that takes places in the mountains has the word death in it is right up my alley.  Once I found out the race would fall during my Spring Break, I knew I had to sign up.  As an added bonus, my good friend from high school lives in Atlanta, and he and his wife agreed to pace me the last 23 miles.  My training leading up to the race had been decent, with my focus being on getting in as many hills as possible.  I haven’t been that excited about a race in a long time.  I couldn’t wait to get to Georgia.

(Finisher From Last Year's Race)
            I flew into Memphis the week of the race to visit family and then drove to Atlanta on Thursday to stay with a good friend from high school (Doug) and his wife (Rebecca).  If you ask my mom or Doug’s mom, he’s the one who got me into running long distances (not completely true), and he gets blamed for some of my adventures.  It was great to catch up with Doug and Rebecca and get a decent night’s sleep before making the 2 hour drive north to the race start in Blairsville.  On the way up, I stopped at Amicalola Falls State Park (where the race would finish) to see the impressive sights and get an idea of what lay in store for me on Saturday.  After dropping my gear off and checking into my hotel room in Blairsville, I hiked up Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in GA at just over 4700’.  The views were spectacular, and I sat on a picnic bench and popped a beer to savor the moment.  I then headed over for the mandatory gear check and race briefing.  As per Forest Service regulations, the RD was making us carry a thermal top, gloves, headlamp, emergency blanket, whistle, hat, and weather proof jacket AT ALL TIMES.  It turns out that I would only use my gloves (for a couple hours) and headlamp, but I carried everything with me for 68 miles.  The theme I sensed during the race briefing was that the word of the day would be “ish”, as in the race is anywhere from 60ish to 68ish miles long.  The finish banner advertised a 60 mile race, but our race bib had 68 miles printed on it.  After the briefing I went to dinner with fellow San Antonio runner John Sharp and his friend Gina, as well as Mike from Virginia.  After sampling the local trout and sweet potato fries, I made a few last-minute preparations and crawled into bed for a few hours of restless sleep.

(My New Buddies Collins and Cooper)

(Highest Point In Georgia)

(Typical Northern GA Terrain)
            The 3AM alarm came all too quickly, but I tend to sleep restlessly the night before a race anyway.  Mike and I gathered our gear and made the 20 minute drive over to Vogel State Park, where the race would begin at 5AM(ish).  It was a cool, crisp morning, but the forecast called for the rain to hold off until late Saturday evening, giving us extra incentive to run fast.  A full moon illuminated the ridge high above the start and provided a beautiful backdrop.  I positioned myself in the middle of the pack, and soon after 5AM, we were on our way up a wide paved road that would lead us out of Vogel and onto the singletrack where we would spend the next 30+ miles.  Having the race start with about a mile of road allowed me to warm my legs up as I ran the modest incline, but it also allowed the field to thin out a bit before we hit the trail, making it slightly less crowded once we did.  My goals for this race were simple – finish.  I had no real time in mind (although I wanted to finish before midnight), and this wasn’t necessarily a “goal race” for me, as all of my training and effort is focused on Wasatch.  I wanted to keep the pace easy, run as much as I could, and hope for the best.  Sean had told us that if we could manage the first 38 miles properly, we would make up lots of time on the last (more runnable) 30(ish).  Sounds easy enough, right?  The trail was fairly narrow, full of fallen leaves that covered up the occasional root or rock.  I ran most of the gradual climbs, energized by the cool morning air.  Some flats, some climbs, and soon we crossed the only water of the day, less than 4 miles into the race.  Sean had warned us that there was no dry way across, so I jumped right in and enjoyed the cold mountain creek water.  Knowing I would have wet feet for over 60 miles, I wasn’t excited about what my feet would look like, but I figured I would just suck it up and deal with it, not wanting to waste any time changing socks along the way.  8 miles in we hit the first aid station at White Oak Stomp.  With the sun still down and only 5 miles to the next aid, I decided to refill just one of the 2 handheld bottles I was carrying.  My nutrition plan was to drink a bottle of Carbo Pro/Skratch mix every hour, a plan that had worked in several previous races.  This would give me roughly 300 calories an hour, and I would throw in a gel or aid station food along the way if I felt I needed more.  After a quick fill, I was out and headed up the steepest (and worst according to Sean) climb on the course, Coosa Bald. 
            Settling into a nice power hike, I was able to pass a few people on the climb (only to be passed on the descents, a trend that would continue most of the day).  The one thing that stood out most on these trails was the lack of switchbacks.  If you had 1000’ to climb, it would be straight up the hill, not the twisting, winding way I was accustomed to ascending in the mountains.  This made the climbs tough but the descents even tougher.  The sun was starting to peek out above the eastern ridges, providing glimpses of the surrounding mountains.  Most of the views were partially obscured by trees, but you could tell that we were in the heart of the southern Appalachians.  Very pretty.  After hitting the top of Coosa Bald, we began the Duncan Ridge section of the course, which previous finishers had warned about.  They told of the relentless nature of this section, how you would climb 500’ – 1000’, only to drop down an equal amount and repeat the process over and over.  Knowing this (and realizing I had nearly 9 miles to the next aid station), I filled 2 bottles with Carbo Pro/Skratch at the Mulky Gap AS (mile 13).  The temps were still cool, and although I was sweating pretty good, I felt like 2 bottles would be enough.  


(Beautiful Morning)



(Rare Flat Section Early)
            The next 7+ miles were just as tough as advertised, as we rolled up and over countless ridge tops.  The terrain underfoot was nice, but the leaves hid any rocks or roots that might want to grab your foot, preventing me from really opening up the legs (can I even do that?) on the descents.  I could feel myself applying the brakes a bit on each drop, knowing my quads would pay for the effort later.  Overall I felt pretty good, but I still had a long way to go over some rough terrain.  At the top of a ridge, a volunteer pointed me to the right and let me know I had a 1000’ descent over 1.5 miles and that I would head back up this same trail after reaching the aid station.  It was a quad-crushing descent, but I enjoyed seeing other runners headed the other way, even though most of them looked like they weren’t enjoying the climb back out.  I saw Sharpie headed up and figured he was a mile or two ahead of me.  After surviving the ride downhill, I arrived at Skeenah Gap AS (mile 21.5) and saw Sean there greeting runners.  As volunteers filled my bottles, Sean asked how I was enjoying the course.  “This is my kind of stupid fun” was my response.   While struggling to pour my Carbo Pro/Skratch mix into a bottle, I did learn an eat new trick (at least it was new for me).  Instead of opening the baggie from the top and pouring the contents in, I found that it was much easier to bite off a corner of the bag and dump it.  Way faster and less messy.  I grabbed my bottles and started the climb back out.

(Climbing On Duncan Ridge)

 (Race Director Sean "Run Bum" Blanton)
           

Friday, February 14, 2014

Wasatch and The Wall


 (Moonlight on Top of The Wall)


(Sun Coming Up over SA)

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I haven’t blogged in quite awhile, as life and work always seem to get in the way.   A lot has happened over the past few months, some of which I hope to write about.  Most recently, I was accepted into the Wasatch 100, so I will be heading out to Utah in September trying for finish #4.  I have a very definitive goal this year, to break 30 hours.  Everything I do between now and the weekend after Labor Day will be with Wasatch in mind.  That is my only goal race for 2014.  Sure, I will run other races, but my focus is on Wasatch and Wasatch alone.  With that in mind, I headed out to Stone Oak yesterday for some hill repeats on “The Wall”.  I love using this hill, as it is a mixture of grass, dirt, and rock.  I will be making The Wall and The Crossing a regular part of my routine as I prepare for the 52,000’+ of elevation change Wasatch will throw at me.  I’m excited about the challenge that lay ahead.  Now I just have to train.


(My Focus for 2104)


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Massanutten 100 Race Report


           As I sit here staring at my puffy feet, which are still too swollen to put on shoes, I am still trying to process what transpired this past weekend in the mountains of Northern Virginia.  I ran my best 100 mile race ever, with nearly everything going perfectly and totally exceeding all of my expectations.  To be honest, the race is still a blur to me.  I usually remember minute details, but this one seemed to pass so quickly that I can’t recall everything.  What is etched in my mind are the incredible aid stations, my unbelievable pacer and crew, and the rocks – oh the rocks.  Here is my attempt to recap my experience at the Massanutten Mountain 100.

(Just a few hills)

          I met my friend Dave (he was running Massanutten as well), his wife Kim, and pacer Liza (more on her in a bit) at the airport, grabbed some much-needed caffeine, and squeezed into a very uncomfortable middle seat (I’m 6’6” – guys like us don’t fit into these seats very well) for the 3 hour flight up to Baltimore.  Upon arriving in Baltimore, we met up with Dave’s friend and pacer, Sean, who had procured some snacks for the drive down to northern VA.  It was a good thing he did this because the drive took us 4 hours (I think I’d go crazy if I had to deal with DC traffic on a daily basis).  We arrived at the campground that would serve as the start/finish for our race, dropped off my drop bags, and grabbed our bib numbers for the adventure we would set off on in the wee hours of the morning.  After having dinner in the nearby town of Luray, we settled into the bunk beds at our cabin (a 5 minute walk from the start) for a few hours of sleep.  As has been the case in my last 3 races, my bed was far from comfortable, as I had a top bunk which was a good deal shorter than my body, causing my legs to stick out pretty far off the edge.  Oh well, it seemed to work out fine at Syllamo and Miwok.  

 (Liza carrying all my stuff - just kidding)

(Dave and I before the start)


          Just before 3AM, the alarms went off and we all started to prepare for the 4AM start.  Although I didn’t sleep well, it was really nice not having to drive anywhere for the start.  10 minutes before we were scheduled to take off, we walked down from our cabin to the starting area, where race director Kevin Sayers sent us off into the woods at precisely 4AM.  My dream goal for this race was to break 30 hours, although I figured a more realistic “A” goal was to set a 100 mile PR (31:49 from Tahoe in 2011).  This was going to be tough since the course was notorious for its climbs and rocks.  Everyone talks about the rocks at Massanutten.  I was curious to see how they stacked up to the rocks we have here in South Texas (at Bandera).  Add to this the fact that the course was 103.7 miles and this was sure to be a wicked trek.  

 (Massanutten has lots of rocks!)


          The first 4 miles are run up a gradual incline on a dirt road, which I really liked because it allowed me to ease into the race and slowly let my legs warm up.  It also allowed runners to separate themselves a bit before we hit the singletrack climb up Short Mountain at mile 4.  Since Liza, Kim, and Sean were planning on meeting us at the first crew-accessible aid station (Edinburg Gap – mile 12), I started with only one handheld water bottle and a flask filled with my EFS “Slurry” concoction.  I topped off my water at mile 4 as we veered sharply onto the trail.  The first thing that hit me was the rocks..  They were everywhere.  Big, small, and everything in between.  If the entire course was like this, it could be a long day.  Up Short Mountain we went, climbing over rocks the entire time.  I felt good and tried to maintain a consistent hiking rhythm.  My plan was to push (but not overdo it) during the daylight hours, knowing it would be tough to move over the rugged terrain at night.  I carried a card with me that had the average arrival time of people who finished around the 30 hour mark last year.  I wanted to check my progress every few aid stations to see if I could stay on this pace.  2 hours and 45 minutes after we started, I ran into the Edinburg Gap aid station, where Liza handed me my Ultimate Direction pack (which I would carry for the rest of the race) and a new Slurry.  Feeling good, I ran out of the aid station and headed for the next climb.

        The general flow of the course was to ascend steeply to the ridgeline, traverse over gently rolling terrain at the top, then descend down a rocky trail to the next aid station.  This pattern was repeated over and over until we had completed nearly 104 miles.  I had 8 miles between Edinburg Gap and the next aid station at Woodstock Tower.  I tried to hike the uphills hard, jog the flats (there weren’t many on this course), and run the downhills as hard as I comfortably could without trashing my quads or rolling an ankle.  I took consistent nips on my Slurry every 20 minutes, trying to keep a steady flow of calories in my system.  I drank plain water as well.  Since the Slurry mix had electrolytes in it, I was able to only have to use 2 sCaps the entire race.  It was nice not having to worry about popping pills every hour despite the humid (but relatively comfortable) weather.  My shirt was drenched with sweat from the humidity, but overall I felt pretty good.  



(Photo by Bobby Gill)


          After grabbing a few things from a small drop bag I had at Woodstock (mile 20.3), I set out for the fairly flatish section between there and the next aid station at Powell’s Fort (mile 25.8).  I honestly couldn’t tell you much of what happened between Woodstock and Elizabeth Furnace (mile 33), but I remember I felt great coming into the aid station, where I startled Liza by arriving so early.  She quickly helped me top off my water and off I went.

          Between Elizabeth Furnace and Shawl Gap (mile 38), things changed.  The day was warming up and I entered the point of the race where my stomach didn’t want to take in any calories.  I wasn’t nauseous or sick, but nothing sounded good.  This usually happens to me when I push the pace or the temps start to rise.  I entered Shawl Gap (mile 38) a bit behind on both fluids and calories, and my crew could see it in my eyes.  I sat down briefly while Sean and Liza filled my bottles.  I quickly drank one down and filled it again.  After a couple minutes, I trudged off down the road, where a 3.5 mile stretch of gravel road awaited.  Knowing I was in need of fuel, I tried to nibble on some Stinger chews I had in my bag.  This seemed to help a bit and soon enough I was at the Veach Gap (mile 41.1) aid station, where the volunteers were extra friendly.  I grazed at the food table and managed to wolf down enough calories to convince myself I was ready to go.


 (Headed out of Veach Gap - Photo by Aaron Schwartzbard)


 

          After a brief section of runnable trail, we started climbing again.  Much of the course is buried beneath the lush greenery of the Virginia Mountains, but every once in awhile you are rewarded with beautiful views of the valleys below.  I was starting to feel much better after catching up on calories and fluids, and now that I had my music on, the descent down into Indian Grave (mile 51) was fast and furious.  In my estimation, I need to be at this aid station at roughly 12-13 hours to have a chance at a sub 30 finish.  When I glanced at my watch and saw that it read 11:21, I was shocked.  Almost halfway done, and I was ahead of schedule.  Still a long way to go I reminded myself.  Things can change quickly. 




(High on a ridge - Photo by Aaron Schwartzbard)
 

 I grabbed a few things from the aid station and headed out for a rolling 4 miles of country roads, during which time it started to drizzle.  I enjoyed the brief sprinkle, as well as the tunes I had blaring on my iPod.  I passed a few runners (I had passed lots of people since mile 20 and had yet to be passed by anyone since then) and jogged into Habron Gap (mile 54), where Liza was waiting to take care of me.  I sat down (something I normally try not to do in a race) and let the wonderful volunteers (and Liza) do their work.  After handing me a popsicle (I hesitantly put it in my mouth as visions of Joe T and his bloody lip flooded my mind), I climbed back onto the trail for the longest stretch between aid stations of the course, nearly 10 miles.  On the bright side, I knew Liza would be waiting at Camp Roosevelt to pace me the last 40 miles (hopefully) to the finish. 

The climb out of Habron Gap was brutal.  I was sweating profusely and felt like my legs were turning to sludge.  Each step felt labored, but I knew I needed to just put my head down and keep moving forward.  The rocks were huge, and it was often difficult to find a good spot to place your feet.  Having music helped, and despite feeling bad I wasn’t getting passed by anyone on the climb.  Soon I reached the top, where we rolled up and down the ridge on narrow trail, a steep drop to the left and solid rock to the right.  To say this trail was narrow would be an understatement.  Nearly 3 hours after leaving Habron Gap, I arrived at Camp Roosevelt (mile 63.9).

          Liza Howard is a great friend, and as soon as I got into MMT she agreed to pace me.  In the interim, she got pregnant, so I assumed she wouldn’t be able to pace me any longer.  Boy was I wrong.  Pacing someone is difficult enough, but doing it 4+ months pregnant is unbelievable.  I couldn’t have done the race without her help, and I am very grateful for her being there.  The initial section of trail leaving Camp Roosevelt led us through an area that had been affected by fires, but interestingly the fires seemed to only have burned one side of the trail.  The footing was rocky, muddy, and very wet in places.  Up to this point I had managed to keep my feet fairly dry, but that was about to change.  My legs didn’t feel too bad, but I wasn’t feeling much like running, so I continued to hike as quickly as I could.  Daylight was slowly fading, and I hoped we could make it 7 miles to the next aid without the aid of my headlamp.   Up and over a steep climb (no surprise here) and into Gap Creek (mile 69.6) we went, just as darkness was settling over the mountains. I was in need of a sock change and some solid food, so I sat down while Liza unlaced my shoes and helped me put on fresh socks.  A volunteer gave me 2 cups of chicken noodle soup, which has always been my go-to late night food in ultras.  Having fresh socks felt like heaven, and after a few minutes I was ready to tackle the next climb.  

(Eating soup at Gap Creek - Photo by Aaron Schwartzbard))



(Liza tending to my feet - Photo by Aaron Schwartzbard)

           We made our way up a jeep road that eventually turned onto a singletrack trail, all the while steadily climbing.  We would make this exact climb once more in the race, at mile 96, so I made a mental note of what to expect.  The first ¾ of the climb wasn’t too bad, but then we hit a section filled with large rocks that made navigation slow and labored.  I had to stop briefly a few times to catch my breath and take in calories.  This stretch seemed to take a lot longer than I had anticipated it would, but we still managed to get to the Visitor Center (mile 78) over an hour ahead of my “goal” time.  I sat down and ate half a hamburger and some quesadillas, washing it all down with 2 cups of ginger ale. 




            On the way out of the aid station, we linked up with another runner and his pacer (local guy) who told us what to expect over the next 25 miles.  He warned abut the climb up to Bird Knob (mile 81), saying it was steep and that we would face a boulder scramble near the top.  All of this sounded fairly daunting in my weary, sleep-deprived state of mind.  We slogged our way up the mountain, ready for this boulder scramble we had been warned about.  When the scramble never came and we found ourselves standing on top of the climb, we found ourselves relieved and excited that this section had been far less troublesome than we had anticipated.  Another mile of running and we arrived at the Bird Knob Aid station (mile 81.6). 




            We didn’t stay at Bird Knob long, and I now knew that finishing was no longer in question.  It was just a matter of what my time would be.  I had 21 miles to go and plenty of time to complete it.  This section of trail was pretty neat because once we ascended to the ridge top, we were engulfed in a cloud, making it difficult to see.  There was a fine mist hanging in the air, which added to the surreal effect of the surroundings.  I was starting to get sleepy and knew I needed to find caffeine at the next aid station, but it seemed to take forever to get there.  2 hours and 15 minutes after leaving Bird Knob (it sure seemed like it took longer than that), we were greeted by another round of ultra friendly volunteers at the Picnic Area (mile 87.9).  I ate several slices of grilled cheese downed a cup of Coke and one of Mountain Dew while Liza put fresh batteries in my headlamp, and then we were off again.




            Only one aid station stood between me and the finish line, just under 16 miles away.  I started doing some mental calculations and realized I had a good chance to break 30 hours, but I knew it was no slam dunk.  I still had a nasty section to navigate between the Picnic Area and Gap Creek, a stretch that would shoot us straight up a drainage full of rocks, water, and plenty of mud.  My feet would remain wet the rest of the race, and the mud made for slippery footing.  I’d love to say this section was enjoyable, but it wasn’t.  As dawn approached, I was filled with a renewed sense of energy, bolstered in part by the caffeine spike from the soda I drank.  With less than an hour to go before we reached the final aid station, we turned off our headlamps and enjoyed the quiet solitude of the new day.  We broke from the woods out onto a dirt road, and soon we could see the lights of Gap Creek (mile 96.8), where I would stop for the last time.
          Having passed through this aid station earlier in the race, I recognized a few faces who offered to fill my bottles and get me food.  As I was stripping off any unnecessary gear to make my pack as light as possible for the final push, a volunteer asked if I wanted a piece of French toast.  Heck yes I did!  As if that wasn’t good enough, she stuck a huge piece of sausage in the middle.  Wow, talk about hitting the spot!  After devouring my piece of toast, we thanked the volunteers and hiked up the road to begin our final climb. 
            We had made this climb earlier, and while it was certainly steep, the footing was relatively smooth, making it much easier to navigate than the nasty drainage we had ascended in the previous section.  Once we reached the paper plate marking the 98 mile mark at the top of the climb, I glanced at my watch to see if I would make it safely under 30 hours.  Much to my surprise, I realized I had a chance to get under 29 hours.  I was ecstatic.  The descent down the singletrack to the road that would take us home was far from graceful, but I managed to stumble/hobble, shuffle most of it.  Once we hit Moreland Gap Road, there was a sign that told us the finish was 4 miles away.  4 miles of road to finish this race – I could handle that.  Much to my chagrin, the road gently sloped down, meaning I had no real excuse to walk.  As I started to jog, my legs felt really good.  I wasn’t setting a blistering pace like Dave had earlier, but I was able to run much of the 4 miles back to camp.  Liza and I calculated where we believed the 100 mile mark was and noted that I reached it in roughly 27:25 (which would have been a 100 mile PR by 4 and a half hours).  If only we could have stopped right there.  We ran/shuffled/hiked, laughing and telling stories along the way.  We finally turned onto the property of the Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp and saw a sign pointing us to the finish line of the Massanutten 100.  In what seemed like a cruel joke, we turned again, this time back onto a winding singletrack trail.  This didn’t last long, and in a matter of minutes we hit the big grass field, where I could see the finish line.  I ran as hard as my legs would allow.  28 hours and 15 minutes after I left this exact spot (103.7 miles ago), I crossed the finish line.  

(Crossing the 100 mile mark)






 (With RD Kevin Sayers - Photo by Bobby Gill)

           
           I’m still shocked that I ran the time I did.  Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would run sub 30, much less sub 29.  I don’t think there is such a thing as a “perfect” 100 miler, but this was about as close as I could come to having that magically perfect race.  I never puked, something that I would normally do 4-5 times in a race of this distance.  I only consumed 2 sCaps, choosing instead to get most of my electrolytes from EFS liquid shots and electrolyte drink (most often in the form of a “Slurry”).  Best of all, I had zero chafing, a malady that has crushed me in the past (thank you Monkey Butt!).  My feet got wet, but I managed to come away with no blisters, thank to my Injinji socks and Brooks Cascadia shoes, which have always been the perfect shoe for me.  Joe Sulak had me ready to rock in the mountains.  Thanks for all the strength work and killer workouts!  Time flew by for me during the race.  There is usually a point in a race (often more than once) when I get overwhelmed with the distance/time still left to cover.  That never happened at MMT.  I felt like things were over almost as soon as they had begun.  I had a blast out there, enjoying my time in the woods and mountains.  While not having Cindy there to help crew was a bummer, getting to share the experience with other close friends was special.  I can’t say enough about Kim, Dave, and Sean.  And Liza was amazing.  There’s no way I could have done this without her help.  To do what she did (while pregnant) was nothing short of miraculous.  I am blessed to have such a great group of friends.  Massanutten was by far the best overall race I’ve been a part of.  The volunteers went above and beyond, always there to get what I needed.  They were the best I’ve ever seen.  The course was both challenging (certainly tougher than Tahoe and close to being on par with Wasatch) and beautiful., playing to my strengths as a decent uphill hiker.  MMT is a must do, and I can’t wait to get back.

 (Sean, Dave, Kim, Myself, and Liza)


 (Buckle #5)