Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Polyester Shirts and Damsels in Distress

Nursing a sore back and a general lack of motivation the latter part of last week, my running was in need of a jolt. I just couldn’t seem to get pumped up about stepping into the soupy mess we call San Antonio humidity. I came up with every excuse to put off runs (my back is sore, I need a day off, blah blah blah), but none of them were any good. What I needed was a good run to get my mental state back on the upward swing, so I headed out for an early evening run at McAllister Park on Sunday. I only ran for an hour, but a few good things happened. First, it felt great to have dirt under my feet. Even a bad run on trails can lift your spirits. Just putting one foot in front of the other was fun. Second, I was testing out running in a polyester button down shirt. Make fun all you want, but it is both comfortable and practical, as I can use the 2 front pockets to stash gels and electrolyte caps. I wear these shirts all the time, but this marked the first time I had run in one. I might be hooked. Finally, when I got home I was able to perform my good deed of the day. I noticed a young lady who seemed to be in trouble near my house, so I offered to help her out and let her come inside to cool off. I even got a picture J

Friday, April 15, 2011

Beautiful Day In Bandera

(One of the "Sisters" - Bandera, TX)

“We bring the slow out in people”. I said this to Tony today when he remarked that a friend looked like she was holding back a little on our run in Bandera. True, we don’t blaze down the trail at elite speed, but we have a fun time enjoying the scenery, fostering great friendships, and (sometimes) basking in the beautiful weather. Today was a perfect day to run at Hill Country State Natural Area. Tom, Tony, Tim and myself met at Tiger Mart at 5AM to head out to Bandera to join up with Troy, Jean, and Chris. Tim is new to our group and had never been to Bandera, so we were eager to show him why we love it so much. Unfortunately, a deer got up close and personal with Tim’s car on the drive out (no one was hurt). At least his first Bandera experience will be memorable. The run itself was perfect. We donned our headlamps (Tony forgot his and paid for it with 2 falls) and headed for Lucky’s Peak, hitting daylight at the top. We scurried down and over to Cairn’s Climb, then Boyle’s Bump, and back to the car to refuel. Jean left us here, and the remaining group headed out for a tour of the 3 Sisters. The sun was out under a blue, cloudless sky, but there was a cool breeze blowing, so the death march that often accompanies this trip over the Sisters never materialized. My legs felt pretty good for the first 10+ miles, but I began to feel the effects of having raced 50 miles just 6 days ago. Up and over the Sisters, we headed back to our cars for a celebratory sampling of beers. Days like today remind me why we are so lucky to have a great group of friends and beautiful trails like those in Bandera.

Now I’m headed to Driftwood (outside Austin) for a bluegrass festival. This day just keeps getting better!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bull Run 50 Race Report

“Let’s try to find you a faster 50 miler this spring”. Those were the words Joe Sulak, friend and coach, said to me after I finished the Bandera 100K in January. Fast and 50 miles should not be used in the same sentence for me, but I started searching online for races that met this criteria (along with my strict “no multiple loop” rule) AND fit into my schedule. The one that stood out from the others was the Bull Run Run, a race that took place just outside Manassas, VA, and home to a famous Civil War battle. The course looked relatively flat (more on this later), it was in early April when the weather should still be cooler in that area, and I had friends in D.C. that I could stay with. So, I put my name in the lottery, ending up on the wait list. A couple weeks before the race, I was notified that I had been moved from the wait list to the entrants list. I was in the Bull Run 50 miler.

The weeks leading up to the race were hectic for me, and I was mentally worn out and very stressed. I just needed to get out of town and onto the trails. I flew to D.C. on my birthday, arriving late at night and checking into a nearby hotel. The weather was cool, with rain in the forecast for much of Friday. After a decent night sleep, I headed into D.C. to drive around and see the sights. That’s when the rain started, light at first, heavy at times. Having seen all you can see by car, I headed to Clifton, VA, a tiny town seemingly in the middle of nowhere, to the race start to pick up my packet and get my first glimpse of the trail. Upon seeing the trailhead, I knew one thing – we were all in for a muddy day on Saturday. The course is essentially 2 out and backs, one that takes you North for 8+ miles and then back to the start (mile 16+), and then another longer out and back to the South. I then drove to nearby Herndon, where a good college friend lived, and where I would be staying for the next 2 nights.

(entrance to the park)

(early section of trail)

After a rather sleepless night (I rarely sleep well the night before a race), I awoke to more rain (it hadn’t stopped since yesterday), but this would soon end. After a quick stop at 7-11 (I wish we had these in San Antonio – SLURPIES!!!), I was soon parking the car in a field near the race start. Going into a big race, I like to mentally set a few goals for myself. The first is usually based on some sort of time I’d like to run, the second something specific that I want to accomplish that day, and the third is always the same – try to smile and have fun. After all, that’s why we run these crazy distances, right? My goals for the Bull Run 50 were:

1. Time (I usually have 3 times, a “fantasy” goal, something I’d still be pleased with, and a fallback time that I would be ok with). Today my goal was to break 10 hours, which I felt was reasonable on this course, assuming it was dry (more on this later too). My “B” goal was to break 11 hours, and my “C” time was to set a PR (previous 50 mile PR was 11:22).

2. This might sound odd, but I really wanted to push myself to the point of finding some pain and suffering. Sometimes this helps me take my mind off of the stresses that I feel. Running 50 miles is going to hurt, so embrace the pain and push through it.

3. Have fun!

Just before the start, the rain ended, but the cool temperatures remained. As it turned out, the weather during the race was perfect for me. I don’t think it ever got above 50 degrees, and the skies were overcast, but no rain. I started in a short-sleeve shirt and arm warmers, with a light long-sleeve top over that, plus gloves. I carried 2 handheld bottles filled with water, and I planned on them lasting me the first 11+ miles of the race. My nutritional strategy was to eat one Hammer gel every 20 minutes until I could no longer stomach gels, then switch to solid foods. I would try to drink one bottle of water (about 20-24 ounces) per hour. At exactly 6:30, we were off. We did one lap around the parking area and then headed onto the Bull Run trail. As in most trail races, it is often difficult to find the right spot to be early on. You don’t want to go out too fast and burn your legs up early, but you also don’t want to get stuck behind a slow pack of runners that keeps you from moving. I found myself somewhere in between. In the first 5-6 miles, we had several stream crossings, and there was almost always a long line of people waiting to use the stepping stones. Once I realized that my feet were going to get soaked even if I used the stones, I joined several others and just waded across the stream itself. The water was often up to my mid-thigh, soaking my legs and getting my shorts wet (this would be a problem later).

The first 7 miles leading to the Centreville Aid Station took us alongside the Bull Run River and were fun to run. Lots of little ups and downs, some great wooded singletrack, and several historic markers denoting Civil War landmarks. Just over 7 miles in, we hit the Centreville Aid Station. Knowing we would be back here in 4.4 miles after hitting the turnaround, I opted not to fill my bottles and headed out. To say this section was muddy would be like saying Bandera is kind of rocky, that Chris is a little friendly, or that Liza is semi fast. The good thing was that the mud didn’t stick to your shoes. It just made running extremely difficult, slowing you down and making you feel like you had run twice the distance. I slipped and slid all over the place, once even going airborne (legs parallel to the ground) and ending up on my side in a huge puddle of mud. It was comical to watch people run, and we all just laughed at the absurdity of the mud and tried to have fun with it, cracking jokes about getting our shoes dirty.

I stopped at the Centreville Aid Station the second time through to fill up my water bottles and dump some trash. It was here that I first noticed a little chafing beginning to bother me. I always run in compression shorts, and I checked to make sure they didn’t have any holes in them. Sure enough, I had a large hole in one leg, so my wet leg was rubbing the seam of the opposite leg. Ouch. I’ll spare you all of the details, but I carried a stick of Body glide with me most of the race and had to stop and re-apply quite often. As I sit here typing this 4 days after the race, my legs feel great but the chafing has me waking like a cowboy who has been in too many rodeos.

Bull Run allows runners to form teams. Each team consists of 4 members and can be made up of any combination of males and females. Since there were only 4 runners entered from Texas, I contacted each of them, and we decide to form a team, “Texas Road Kill”. Running on a team doesn’t change anything about the race in terms of mileage or rules. I mention this because, as I was heading back to the start/finish aid station at Hemlock (mile 16.6), I ran into 2 members of our team, Clive and Jennifer (both from the Dallas area). We ran into the aid station together, but they headed towards the drop bag area while I went straight to the restroom for my now customary 5+ minute bathroom break. After my pit stop, I grabbed a handful of Hammer gels, took 2 fresh water bottles, ditched my long-sleeve top, and headed out for my final 34 miles.

(Approaching Hemlock Aid Station at mile 16.6)

(Leaving Hemlock Aid Station)

Based on my projected splits, I knew I was behind where I had hoped to be, but given all the mud, I was pleased with my run so far. I could have gone a little faster, but the mud really slowed things down for everyone. I continued to feel pretty good and to run at a decent pace for the next 5+ miles. Not too long before the Fountainhead Aid Station (mile 28.1, about 5.5 hours into the race), I began to eat a gel and knew it would be my last of the day. Usually when my stomach decided it has had enough gels, it will instantly let me know. Rather than try to choke down the gel, I switched to Clif Shot Bloks for a change in taste and consistency.

(One of the few dry sections)

After stocking up with more bloks, some peanut butter pretzels, and more water, I left the Fountainhead Aid Station (mile 28.1) on my way to the “Do Loop”. I would be back at Fountainhead in about 10 miles. In almost every ultra race I have done, I seem to have a low point in which I question almost everything from my motivation for running to my life in general. There is something about running 50+ miles that strips me down and cause me to reflect on everything going on in my life, both good and bad. For me, my physical and mental state feed off of each other during a run. When one is high, the other seems to go well. When one drops, the other sinks too. The next 8 miles would mark my lowest point of the race. I can’t pinpoint any one particular issue, more a combination of things. Most of it was mental, as my legs still felt pretty good (chafing was getting really bad by now). I just wasn’t motivated to run anymore. My stomach wasn’t rebelling, but food didn’t sound good. My legs felt ok, but I couldn’t run. Nothing seemed to be working. I put on my iPod in the hopes that some music would help lift me out of my funk, but no such luck. It was somewhere during the 3 mile “Do Loop” that I decided I didn’t care about my pre-race goals. I was probably going to finish near the back of the pack in over 12 hours, and I began to mentally prepare for that. I knew I could walk the rest of the race and still finish, but my “racing” was over. I was mentally fried. A week’s worth of stress and very little sleep had finally caught up to me. Maybe, I thought, I wasn’t cut out for “fast” ultras.

(Coming into Fountainhead at mile 28)

After what seemed like an eternity, I finished the “Do Loop” and stopped at an aid station to fuel up. I ate a couple slices of pb&j, guzzled a little Gatorade, and headed back out. Over the next mile I tried to focus on staying positive and encouraging the runners headed away from me who were about to start their Do Loop. And then it hit me – these people are struggling too. The more people I passed, the more I began to realize that I was still ahead of a lot of runners, and this seemed to lift my spirits. About the same time, one of my favorite songs (“Bolton Stretch” by Yonder Mountain String Band) came on, and I began to run, slowly at first. As I ran, I started to feel better and better. I looked at my watch and did some quick math (I teach Geography, so my math isn’t really “quick”) and realized that I could still beat my previous PR (11:22) if I kept pushing and ran more.

I made a quick stop at Fountainhead to grab some Gu Chomps (thanks Liza for the recommendation of Watermelon!) and more peanut butter pretzels, and I was off, running down the trail and feeling great (well, my chafing still hurt like crazy). The more I ran, the better I felt (mentally and physically). I did some more calculations and saw that I might be able to break 10 hours if I could keep this pace up. The last 10 miles weren’t easy, as there were several short, steep climbs and descents, and plenty of mud, but overall I was able to run most of it, even passing a few people along the way. 3 times I was asked by hikers and sightseers how far I the race was. Each time, when I told them 50 miles, I was greeted with astonishment, confusion, and looks of “what the heck are you doing that for”!

(Approaching the finish line)

I began to recognize my surroundings, and when I hit a small field, I knew I was almost done. I rounded a corner and saw the finish line. When I crossed the line in 10:40, I was surprised. 5 hours ago I thought I was certain to finish over 12 hours. After collecting my finisher’s gifts (towel and really nice Patagonia long-sleeve shirt), I limped over to a table and sat down. My feet and legs felt pretty good, but I was covered in mud and mentally exhausted.

(All Done!)

Looking back on my experience at Bull Run, I realize that in some ways ultra running is like life itself. Both can be fun, rewarding, and difficult at times. You are sure to have many highs and even some lows, but the more you persevere, the better things get. More often than not, a low point will pass and turn into an incredible high. I experienced a low point for part of the race that almost derailed my entire day. Knowing that you can push through these lows and come out stronger is a great feeling. Overall, I was happy with my day at Bull Run. I met my goals and had a great time. I wouldn’t say the course was easy (lots of little hills and tons of mud), but it was enjoyable and something I will definitely do again one day.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hells Humidity

I decided late last week that I would ride out to Smithville with Chris to run the Hells Hills 25K on Saturday. Since I have the Bull Run 50 miler coming up this weekend, my goal was to try not to push too hard (sometimes difficult in a “race”) and to enjoy a new course (I’ve never run there before). We had a track meet on Friday, so I got to bed late, not fun since my alarm was set for 3:30 AM. After a 2 hour drive, I registered and talked to several friends who were there to help and/or run. The race had 4 distances to choose from, with the 50 miler starting at 5 AM, the 50K at 6, and the 25K and 10K at 7. Chris, Jason, and I toed the line for the 25K and were soon running up a slight hill and into the woods.

One thing that became very apparent early on was the fact that it was VERY humid. I was soaked with sweat after 10 minutes. I was really glad I had no intentions of pushing myself too hard today. After passing a few slower runners, I settled into a nice groove that I hoped to maintain for the rest of my run. Soon Chris passed me a few miles in, saying legs were feeling good. I spent the remainder of the run slowly passing other runners, only being passed by a couple guys running the 50 miler (boy was I glad I didn’t have to run that far in that humidity). The most exciting thing happened was being passed (briefly) by an 8 year old kid. He ended up finishing in 3 hours, quite an amazing feat for someone so young. I have a feeling we’ll hear more about him in the coming years. I jogged through the finish line in 2:49, happy with my effort.

I accomplished both of my goals for the day. When I felt like I was starting to push a little too hard, I purposely eased back on the throttle and slowed down. I thoroughly enjoyed the course but was very glad to be done after one loop. Luckily Asa was there to hose me down (in full firefighter gear) and cool me off. Another great Joe P race that I will attend again in the future.