Saturday, May 28, 2016

High Times in the Low Country: My Hypoxico Experience – Part 1

-->             I love the mountains.  The higher up in altitude I go, the happier I am.  I don’t care if I’m racing, hiking, or crawling – I just want to spend time in the high country.  Pursuing my passion for the mountains can be a challenge when you live at 1,000’ above sea level.  I am lucky because as a high school teacher my job allows me time to get out to the mountains well ahead of any race so I can acclimatize.  Still, I’ve always wanted to bypass that 2 week period where gasping for air is inevitable as my body makes the necessary adaptations to allow me to run and play above 10,000’.  For several years I have looked into buying a Hypoxico system, but they can be an expensive (totally worth it in my opinion) investment, and not all family members get excited about spending hours sleeping in a tent.  
(My Idea of Paradise)

(Hypoxico Tent)

This spring my coach and friend Joe Sulak began working out of Stratton Sport and Spine in San Antonio, a clinic that had, among other things, a Hypoxico altitude simulator.  Brock Stratton, the owner, and Joe brought me in to test it out, and after 6 weeks I am a believer.  Joe devised a protocol that, in 3 workouts of 30 minutes each per week, would have me mountain ready by June.  We started relatively low, usually beginning at 5,000’ and working up to 8,000’, running at speeds ranging from 5mph to 6mph.  Now I begin at 10,000’ (7mph) and work up to fast intervals (10mph) at 12,000’.  Aside from feeling better, my oxygen saturation levels prove that my body is adapting to the stresses of higher elevations.  That’s the cool thing about working with Joe and Brock.  Believe what you want about the methods they use, the science backs up the results. 

(It Puts the Lotion In the Basket)
I can run faster at higher elevations than when I began, and we have even added a few “passive” sessions into the protocol, where I sit around at 22,000’ reading a book.  This sounds easy, but your brain doesn’t function well at that altitude, and I usually have to remain seated for a few minutes afterwards so I don’t pass out.  It’s a surreal experience.  I am excited about my mountain fitness and can’t wait to test it out for real in a couple weeks.  

(Light Reading at 22,000' Above Sea Level)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

“You Can’t Pick Up Any White Women Driving Slow” – My Hardrock Experience (Part 1 – Before the Race)

            I fell in love with the San Juans in the summer of 2007 on my first trip to Telluride.  I had just finished my first year as a teacher and decided to travel to Colorado for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and to explore places I’d only heard about.  The minute I crested the pass and saw Trout Lake ringed by snow-capped peaks just outside Telluride, I knew I had found paradise.  This place was special.  I have since spent many hours in the mountains, exploring some of the most beautiful scenery this country has to offer, but I still find myself drawn to the San Juans.  If you’ve been there, you get it.  If not, well, it’s difficult to explain.  They are massive, rugged, and undeniably beautiful.  I am in awe every time I go.  It truly feels like home.  I have since gone back to the Bluegrass Festival 6 times, and it never gets old.  I look forward to my yearly trip and can’t think about anything else the last few months of school.  I get to run in the most beautiful mountains in the U.S. for hours, then listen to bluegrass music until the early morning hours.  It doesn’t get much better than that.
(Trout Lake)

            The summer of 2007 also marked my first mountain ultra, the White River 50 Miler in Washington.  I suffered quite a bit that day, but I was hooked.  2 years later I signed up for my first 100 mile trail race, the Wasatch Front 100 in Utah.  It was rugged and beautiful, and it just happened to be a Hardrock qualifier (although this was the furthest thing on my mind when I registered).  I decided to put my name in the Hardrock lottery, but I was not chosen.  Nor was I chosen the next 5 times I tried, and with each passing year (accompanied by more trips to the San Juans) my fascination with Hardrock grew until I could barely contain myself.  I HAD to run that race.  It was the perfect combination of rugged beauty and extreme challenge.  As the race grew in popularity, the chances of getting selected in the lottery grew smaller and smaller.  I was lucky enough to pace a friend (John Sharp) in 2012, so I got to experience firsthand the final 54 miles in the clockwise direction (the race alternates direction each year).  I was both frightened and enthralled by the experience.  Finally, after 6 tries, my name was called.
 (Finishing the White River 50 in 2007 - my first mountain ultra)

          I had followed the previous 5 lotteries via Twitter, waiting anxiously with friends to see if any of our names were called.  This year I was in the mountains of northern Georgia running a 50k with a friend in some of the most horrendous conditions (the mud was laughable), so there would be no waiting by the phone or constantly hitting refresh on my computer screen.  I knew that friends and family would let me know if my name was drawn, and I anxiously awaited the end of my race so I could check my messages.  When I got back to the car (and had time for my numb hands to dry and thaw out), I saw dozens of messages congratulating me on being selected for the 2015 running of Hardrock.  I was speechless.  I had been waiting 6 years for this.  After the euphoria wore off, I was left with a slight sense of dread and worriedness.  How would I train for this race, with it’s 67,000’ of cumulative elevation change and average elevation of 11,400’, in San Antonio?  I had hills, but no mountains.  This was going to be quite the challenge, one I was ready to tackle.
            After sitting down with my coach and close friend Joe Sulak, we hammered out a plan that would prepare me for 100 miles of “wild and tough”, as the race’s motto states.  We carved out weekend trips to the Guadalupe Mountains in West Texas, countless hours of incline work on the treadmill, and a couple mountain races to test my fitness along the way.  I totally trust what Joe says, so I knew that whatever he had me doing would work.  I would continue my weekly strength workouts with Joe, which I firmly believe have made me a better runner over the years.  I would arrive in Colorado 3 weeks before the race, giving me ample time to acclimatize to the altitude.  With the plan in place, I began counting down the days until school was out and I headed West.  I spent hours watching You Tube videos of the race, reading reports from past years, and talking with Joe Prusaitis (who has 7 Hardrock finishes and offered a wealth of information).  I studied maps and memorized elevation  profiles.  Although the course is marked (“sparsely marked” in the words of Course Director Charlie Thorn), there are section where navigating can be difficult.  Snow, fog, and animals eating flagging all wreak havoc on the marking, so anyone attempting Hardrock should have a fairly good understanding of where the should be and where the course goes.  I prepared for this race like none before, because it was a race like none I had ever run before.  I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.  I had to do it right.  
(The Guadalupe Mountains - my "local" mountain)

(Fun at 40%)

            The second semester of school whizzed by, and before I knew it I was wishing my students a happy summer and packing my car for the month-long adventure.  The plan was to spend 5-6 days in Telluride (by way of Taos and Rico), another few in Ridgway, followed by 10 days in Crested Butte before moving over to Silverton the week of the race.  We had received an email in mid April detailing the snowpack conditions on the course and predictions for the race.  Snow had been sparse in the San Juans and we could expect a mostly dry course come July 10.  But then a funny thing happened in May in Colorado (and elsewhere) – it snowed…a lot.  By some accounts the San Juans received more snow in May than any other month this season.  Now the rumor was that this could be one of the snowiest Hardrocks ever.  Since I live in South Texas, I have limited experience with training and running in snow, especially the deep stuff.  I made my mental plans of routes I wanted to hit, peaks I wanted to bag, sections of the course I wanted to scout.  But when I stopped in Taos, NM on my way out to Colorado, I realized the snow in the high country was going to make these tasks very difficult, if not impossible. 
(Lots of this while I was in Colorado)

            I tried (unsuccessfully) to summit Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest peak at over 13,000’.  I made it to just under 11,000’ before the waist-deep post holing began.  After a few minutes of this I realized I was fighting a losing battle and headed back down to try another approach.  I made it all the way (through snow) to Williams Lake at 11,000’ before turning back.  I would repeat this same scenario numerous times over the next 10 days as I trudged up and down the peaks around Telluride and Ouray.  The days were warm and clear, and the snow was melting fast, but there was a whole lot of snow to melt.  I ran solo most days and enjoyed the solitude, although it was nice to have a familiar face join me a time or two.  I spent a few days in Crested Butte before one of my pacers, Dave Brown, arrived with his family and dog (who apparently is immune to leaps from second floor balconies).  We explored the Elk Mountains and Maroon Bells surrounding Crested Butte, a place I would move to in a heartbeat.  I am obsessed with that town, maybe more so than any in Colorado.  Everything was so green, and the contrast against the reddish hue of the Maroon Bells was spectacular.  It made tapering very difficult, and I found myself cutting a few outings “short” at 16 miles and wanting more.  I can’t resist summittng a pass, and I’m a sucker for high mountain lakes.  

(Copper the Wonderdog) 

(The Maroon Bells)

          Cindy joined us in Crested Butte for a few days before we headed to Silverton.  I had experienced great weather for 95% of my trip, but that all changed in Silverton, where it rained for much of the week leading up to the race.  I guess this could be seen as a blessing, as I wasn’t tempted to spend countless hours exploring the mountains so close to Hardrock.  I hiked the 4 mile section from the Bear Creek (Ouray – there are 3 different Bear Creeks on the HR course) trailhead to Ouray AS and out to Camp Bird Road with Dave and Eric White since Dave and I would be hitting that at night and wanted to be familiar with it.  Chris (crew, chief napper) and Liza (pacer) drove up from San Antonio a couple days prior to the race, and we all had fun seeing other runners and crews walking around town.  We sat through the “shortened” (2 hours instead of the typical 4+) course briefing, during which Charlie Thorn detailed the various ways we could die on the “sparsely marked” course, none of which made Cindy laugh.  Several of us walked the last few miles of the course to make sure we knew the route and could find our way home in our oxygen-depleted state at the end of the race.  I packed my drop bags (ask Chris for a detailed account of this), bought some souvenirs, and stopped at the local coffee shop/brewery for one final beer before settling down at the house for what I knew would be a very restless night.  In what I can only describe as one of the funniest conversations I’ve ever overheard, a local miner detailed life in Silverton to Cindy.  After boasting that he had once driven from Silverton to Ouray in 17 minutes (if you’ve ever driven this road, you know how ridiculous that sounds), our new friend remarked (with a sheepish grin) that “you can’t pick up any white women driving slow”. 

 (Helping the local economy)

 (Dave exploring the climb out of Ouray)

 (Mineral Creek - mile 98.5)

(Even aliens want a picture with the Cactus Kid)

(Ready to go)

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Goin' Out West - Week 1

Tuesday (6/16)

            After spending the night with friends outside Taos, NM (very different town than I had envisioned), I drove to the Taos Ski Valley to make an attempt to summit Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s tallest mountain at just over 13,000’.  I had summited the previous year from the other (Red River) side, but I wanted to see the Bull of the Woods Trail and its beautiful ridges from the Taos side.  The same storms that have brought devastating flooding to Texas dumped massive amounts of spring snow in the mountains, so I had my work cut out for me.  Sure enough, after only 3.5 miles, I hit impassable (for me) amounts of snow, still 5 miles from the summit.  Disappointed, I turned and headed back down the mountain, unsure how I would get my 15 miles in for the day.  Once at the Ski Valley again, I explored and found another trailhead (Williams Lake) and followed it up to the lake at 11,000’.  I encountered a good bit of snow along the way in the woods, forcing me to follow the blue blazes on the tress since the trail was buried much of the time.  I passed several groups of people who were coming down from the lake, and they warned me that there was a bear and her cub roaming around the lake.  Much to my dismay, the bears were nowhere to be found when I arrived at the lake, which was beautiful and ringed by high snow-covered peaks.  With a storm approaching, I quickly made my way back down through the snow to my car, hit the local brewery for a burger and beer, and made the drive to Rico, CO, where I had managed to find a hostel run by a guy who went to my high school in Memphis. 

Mileage – 14.8
Time – 4:36
Ascent – 3967’
Descent – 3967’
Total Vertical - 7934'
Waking HR/Pulse Ox – N/A

(Lots of Snow)

(Williams Lake)

 (Rio Grande Gorge)

Wednesday (6/17)

            I chose Rico in part because the hostel was cheap and owned by a guy from Memphis, but also because it offered quick access to the trails in the Lizard Head Wilderness.  I have been coming to the San Juans for 7 summers, but I have yet to explore this area around Lizard Head Peak.  I decided I would try to make it to the pass (12,600’) but knew I might not be able to due to the snowpack.  I set out under a clear blue sky and cool temps, and sure enough, I turned back after 2.5 miles and headed down to my car due to the snow.  I drove a few miles to another trailhead, hoping for better luck.  I made it another couple miles before I had to cross several snowfields in which the snow came up to my waist at times.  After 30 minutes of this (and seeing no break in the snow ahead), I again turned back and headed to the car.  Although I only logged 10 miles, my legs were worked.  It isn’t easy (at least not for me) to work your way up the mountain through deep snow, and the run back down was no picnic either as the melting snow created rivers of mud and cold water.  My stabilizer muscles got quite a workout.  After my run I drove to Trout Lake and soaked my feet in the water while soaking up some Rocky Mountain sun.  It was a beautiful day, and I was headed to Telluride for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, my annual journey into the San Juans.  To see how well I was acclimating to the altitude, I brought a pulse oximeter and would be measuring my waking heart rate and oxygen saturation in my blood.

Mileage – 10.3
Time – 3:34
Ascent – 2234’
Descent – 2234’
Total Vertical - 4468'
Waking HR/Pulse Ox – 66/90

(Theme For the Trip)

(Love the San Juans)

(Lizard Head Peak)

 (Trout Lake)

Thursday (6/18)

Telluride, what more can I say.  I was hooked the first time I saw that box canyon.  If you’ve ever been, you get it.  Waking up early a bit tired and stiff after late night of music, I looked out the window to see bright blue skies and snow-covered peaks inviting me to come play.  My goal was to log about 4 hours of running/hiking, so I took the gondola down into town and headed for Tomboy Road in hopes of making it up to Imogene Pass at 13,100’.  The road is fairly tame by CO jeep road standards in terms of footing, but it gets steep.  I made it all the way to the abandoned mining town of Tomboy (roughly 11,400’) before running into a snowplow that was clearing the road.  The snow drifts on either side were well above my head.  This road is popular with jeep enthusiasts in the summer, as it links the towns of Telluride and Ouray.  I turned around and headed back down, then hopped on the Jud Wiebe trail for a couple more hours of fun.  All in all it was a good first day in Telluride.

Mileage – 15.2
Time – 4:14
Ascent – 4334’
Descent – 4334’
Total Vertical – 8668’
Waking HR/Pulse Ox – 80/89

(Probably the Only Property In Telluride I Could Afford)

(Looking Up Towards Imogene Pass)

(Almost To the Snowplow)

 (Looking Down On the Festival)

Friday (6/19)

            Friday’s workout was just that – a workout.  There was nothing “fun” about this one, just a quad-pounding downhill-focused couple hours.  The shortest “trail” from the top of the gondola (10,500’) down into Telluride (8,750’) drops roughly 1800’ in 2.6 miles.  My day would consist of running down and taking the gondola back up, a total of 5 times.  My legs felt surprisingly good, and I even managed to get faster on the 3rd rep and maintain a decent pace.  This is definitely something I couldn’t have done in San Antonio. 

Mileage – 13.1
Time – 1:43
Ascent - 0
Descent – 8264’
Waking HR/Pulse Ox – 79/90

(Headed Down There x5)

Saturday (6/20)
            I took today off.  My quads were screaming, and the lineup of good bluegrass music was long.  I’d spend my day baking in the sun listening to good music.

Mileage – 0
Time – 0
Ascent - 0
Descent – 0
Waking HR/Pulse Ox – 73/90

(Beautiful Festival Weather)

 (Hard To Beat Telluride Sunsets)

Sunday (6/21)

            Today was scheduled as a longer (8 hour) day.  My friend Eric drove over from Durango (he lives in SA) to meet me and see the San Juans.  It was his first time here, and I was eager to show him around some of my favorite trails.   We started from the St. Sophia gondola station at 10,500’ and headed up a service road aiming to hit the top of the Gold Hill ski life (just under 12,000’) and then head down to town.  We were close to the top when I noticed a deer (maybe an elk) atop the hill.  There was some snow to cross, but we decided to follow the hoofprints to the top.  When we got there, much to our surprise we saw a figure standing on a mound of snow, staring off into the distance.  It turned out to be local runner Ricky Denesik, who knows the trail around Telluride better than anyone.  He showed us around and led us on a rather scary scramble up some loose rock (we had to down climb using cables on the return trip), but the view from the top of Gold Hill (over 12,500’) was incredible.  Snow surrounded us, and the perfectly blue sky provided the perfect backdrop to the towering San Juan peaks.  Ricky told us about his race that he is putting on in August and then led us down the mountain towards a trail that would take us to Bear Creek.  We said goodbye, and Eric and I headed up to view the falls at Bear Creek.  Mostly because it’s relatively easy and convenient to access from town, this trail was full of people wanting to catch a glimpse of the impressive falls.  We took a few pictures and cooled off in the spray of the falls, then headed to the other side of town and up Tomboy Rd.  We made it a few miles before Eric and I both decided that we were ready to turn around.  We cruised back to town and grabbed fries and a beer at the local pub.  Afterwards, Eric got on the gondola to head back to his car and drive to Durango, while I took the trail up and did a fee more hours of hiking/running.  All in all, it was a very productive training day for me.

Mileage – 26.8
Time – 7:56
Ascent – 7956’
Descent – 8917’
Total Vertical – 16,873’
Waking HR/Pulse Ox – 76/90

A great kickoff to my mountain training.  Totals for the week…

Mileage – 80.2
Time – 21:53
Ascent – 18,491’
Descent – 27,716’
Total Vertical – 46,207’

 (Another Great Sunset)

 (Top of Gold Hill)

(Running Down With Eric and Ricky)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

One Crazy Week - Georgia Death Race Report Part 1

It's been awhile since I've posted anything, but here is part 1 of my race report from the Georgia Death Race.  It was my second year in a row running the race, which occurs during my spring break and is a lot of fun.

Monday (3/9)
            I caught an evening flight into Memphis to spend a few days with family before flying to Atlanta for the Georgia Death Race in the mountains of northern Georgia.  Before I leave I call to confirm my reservations at the lodge at Amicalola Fall State Park, where packet pickup is on Friday and the race will end sometime around midnight on Saturday.  I chose to stay here so I wouldn’t have to drive anywhere post race and wouldn’t need to move my car, choosing instead to catch the 3:30AM shuttle over to the race start at Vogel State Park at 6AM.  After a short layover in Houston, I arrive in Memphis to find my bags soaking wet from the rain. 

Tuesday (3/10)
            I didn’t set an alarm and slept in for the first time in a long time.  It felt great.  My parents and I went to breakfast (breakfast is hands down my favorite meal) and then ran some errands with my sister.  I received an email from the RD letting us know a big announcement was forthcoming later that evening.  Not thinking much about it, I visited with my sister and then had dinner with more family.  After dinner I checked my messages and saw the announcement.  Due to issues with the Forest Service (heavy rain in the forecast was creating concern over potential trail damage), the race would now be run in the opposite direction and start at 8AM instead of 6.  This may sound like an fairly insignificant change, but it meant the race would now begin with 50K of forest service roads, with lots of climbing but still pretty runnable.  The big change would be the finish, which would consist of 35(ish) miles of super steep and gnarly singletrack.  Instead of getting this section (half of which is run on the infamous Duncan Ridge Trail) done early in the race while the legs are still fresh, we would tackle it at night on tired quads.  Over 60% of the elevation change (roughly 25,000’ of the 40k total) would occur in the last 25 miles.  Also, since we would now start at Vogel and finish at Amicalola, they would be busing us from Vogel over to the start.  So, I could keep my room at the lodge and sleep in, or I could get a room closer to the finish so I would have my car there.  The later start meant more time running at night and a later finish, thus less sleep post race.  I quickly searched around a found a small cottage located inside Vogel State Park, about 100 yards from where I would finish.  This would be perfect!  I booked this and canceled my reservations at Amicalola.

(Nothing Beats A Good Breakfast)
Wednesday (3/11)
            I slept in again and felt great when I woke up.  Well, great except for the horrible chest cold and cough I had.  With the course now reversing directions, I had to re-work my drop bags and pacing chart.  The more I thought about it, the more I got excited about the new challenge, which the RD promised would be much harder than the originally planned direction that I completed last year.  I spent much of the day visiting with family and relaxing, even managing to squeeze a little work and a nice 6 mile run.

(Hanging With My Niece Hannah)

 (See the Resemblance)

Thursday (3/12)
            Awakening to rain for the 3rd straight morning was getting old, and when I checked the forecast for the race I saw that I could expect more of the same.  Of course, my last 4 races had been run in sloppy rain and mud, so this shouldn’t have been surprising.  I stuffed myself with some good Memphis BBQ (pork, the way it should be) and then headed to the airport to catch my flight to Atlanta.  Luckily for me, I connected through Baltimore (sarcasm intended).  I could have driven to Atlanta in less time.  After 2 uneventful flights, I arrived in Atlanta, picked up my rental car (was mistakenly given a Jeep Wrangler), and drove to a high school friend’s house to grab a few hours of sleep.

(My Buddy Lance Guarding My Door in Atlanta)
Friday (3/13)
            After a restless night, I awoke (tired) and visited with Doug, a good friend from high school who paced me last year at the GDR and ran a 50K with me in these same mountains last December (where it poured rain and was incredibly muddy).  After spending the morning with Doug and his wife and kids, I headed to meet 2 friends from college for lunch.  Scott, Walt, and myself had graduated together and played basketball at Washington & Lee, where we were the only 3 seniors from our class that played all 4 years (11 started together as freshmen).  I hadn’t seen them in several years, so we had plenty to talk about.  After lunch I stopped in to a growler store to sample some local brew.  The keg ran out as he was filling my growler, so he gave me the imperial porter for free.  This had to be a good sign of things to come.
            After making the hour and a half drive north into the Georgia mountains, I arrived at Amicalola State Park for packet pickup and the race briefing.  Like many European races, the GDR requires runners to carry a number of mandatory items at all times throughout the race, ranging from a rain jacket and thermal top to headlamp and space blanket (plus spare batteries, water bottle, warm hat, and whistle).  For the most part, I deem these items as “things no idiot would go into a mountain race without”, but some people show up totally unprepared for the changing weather the mountains like to dish out.  The RD runs quite a few races in Europe (I met him at a 100K around the Eiger), and it is typical of Euro races to require certain gear.  I picked up my bib and sat through the trail briefing from RD Sean “Run Bum” Blanton.  The briefing can best be described as a PG-13 rant against the Forest Service.  He explained why he needed to reverse the route (totally justified in my opinion) and apologized for any inconvenience.  He also stressed that the word of the day (I learned this when I ran the race last year) would be “ish”.  As in, it is 8ish miles from one aid station to another.  The race would be anywhere from 63 to 68 “ish” miles and no one should complain if their Garmin said something different.  

            After the briefing, I quickly made my way to the car, wanting to complete as much of the hour plus drive to Vogel State Park (where my cottage awaited) in the fading daylight.  I knew the road was winding and would fill with fog and rain, so I wanted to get going.  Sure enough, the rain came down harder and the fog thickened as I wound my way up to the top of the mountain and over the other side towards Vogel.  I was going 20mph at times in an effort to keep my Wrangler on the road.  Eventually I pulled into Vogel and went to the office to grab my key.  I had called earlier in the day to let them know I’d be there well after they closed.  I was told it was no problem, that they would leave an envelope on the board with all my info and key.  I scanned the bulletin board for my name, but it wasn’t there.  Hmmmm, this is weird.  I looked again, and nothing.  I knew which cottage I had rented, so I walked into the pitch black night to find it.  I quickly located it and checked the door – locked.  The windows were locked too.  This wasn’t good.  I went back to my car to see if I could muster any cell signal.  I had just enough to find the reservations number and call.  All I got was a recording telling me they were closed for the day.  I opened the email containing my reservation and noticed that I had indeed booked the cottage for Friday and Saturday nights --- of the following week.  Awesome.  Now I was sitting in the parking lot in the rain with no room.  I knew there were hotels (not many and none that were decent) in the small town of Blairsville 20 minutes away.  I remembered passing the Blood Mountain Cabins at the top of the mountain a few miles away and thought it would be worth giving them a call.  The man who answered informed me that he could help me out and had a cabin available, but that it was a few miles down the road.  No problem, I just needed a place to stay.  I headed back up the mountain into the fog and knocked on the door at the general store that served as the front desk for cabin rentals.  The man gave me a map and explained where my cabin was.  He even apologized for not having anything smaller, but I wasn’t complaining since I now had a bed to sleep in and the price was cheaper than a hotel room.  I drove back up the road and turned off the main highway.  To say this area was desolate would be an understatement.  I’m pretty sure this is where the guys from Deliverance go to unwind and relax.  After several wrong turns, I found the cabin and pulled into the driveway, careful to keep my car running with the headlights on in case I needed to make a quick getaway from a bear or these guys...

The cabin was great, equipped with a fireplace and full kitchen to go along with the 3 bedrooms.  I unloaded and re-packed my race gear and settled in for a few hours of restless sleep.  I got up and drove back down the mountain to Vogel to catch the 6AM shuttle (Sean told us the buses would leave at 6 sharp).  I got on the bus at 5:55 along with several other runners.  The rain was coming down, and we chatted about the adventure that lay ahead.  When the bus was still parked at 6:15, the bus driver told us he was waiting for the RD to come give him the ok to depart.  That would have been great, except the RD was at the start, over an hours drive away.  We ended up leaving just after 6:30 and made the long (we were in school buses) drive over the mountains to Amicalola, where Sean informed us the start would be delayed.  Great, this meant more time running in the dark of night and less sleep post race.  Oh well.  I made one final bathroom stop and said hi to Jason Bryant.  At 8:15, we headed off up the road to the stairs that would take us to the top of the falls.


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!


(Dinner In Park City With Rachel and Larry)

(Sub 30 Buckle and Finisher's Plaque)