Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Can I Do This Forever?

My friend Tony asked me on a run recently how long I planned on running ultras and what drove me to do them. He runs ultras as well, as do many of our friends. I think many of us would point to the love of running trails and the friends we get to run with as the primary reasons we do what we do. For me, it is a combination of several things. First, I love trails and the scenery they provide. Put me on a mountain trail, and I guarantee my mood will improve. There is something about trails and mountains that just lights a fire within me. Second, I am lucky enough to have an unbelievably fantastic group of friends to run with. On any given day, I can find someone who is willing to join me for a run. Our group is awesome. Having friends like I have makes running feel easy. In addition to these factors, I love the challenge (both physical and mental) of running ultras. As I’ve said before, ultras are a great metaphor for life. You will have many highs and a few lows. Generally, if you can wait out the bad patches, things will get better. Finishing an ultra gives me the confidence to tackle almost anything. I always feel great (although the body may disagree) after finishing a race.

So, back to Tony’s question about how long I intend on running ultras. My answer – as long as my body allows me to do it and as long as the enjoyment is there. Frankly, I don’t see an end in sight. I’m having a blast doing what I’m doing and have no desire to stop. I love my friends, I love the trails, and I love the ultra community.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Pacer For Hire

When I heard a few weeks ago that my friend David Brown might need a pacer for the Leadville 100, I was intrigued. When he told me that he would like for me to pace him, specifically to pace him over Hope Pass (arguably the toughest part of the course as it climbs nearly 3,000’ and back down), I was both excited and fearful. I love Leadville and relished the chance to run in the mountains, but David is fast, really fast. I wavered on whether I should go and ultimately decided it would be fun. If only I had known…

(Mt. Massive)

I arrived in Leadville this past weekend and drove to the house I would be sharing with David and 6 others for the weekend. We ate salmon and veggies that the guys had grilled, and I drove into town to say hi to my friends Willie and Chris, both of whom were also running the Leadville 100. Knowing I had a long day ahead, I got to bed early (9PM), but I didn’t fall asleep until close to 10. The guy I was sharing a room with awoke at 2AM, so needless to say I was tired from the start.

(Our House For the Weekend)

When I agreed to pace David, he was unsure how many people would be able to run, as some of his pacers were nursing injuries. I was prepared to run the section from Winfield (over Hope Pass) to Twin Lakes, roughly 10 miles. I was also aware that I might be needed for more if any of the others couldn’t go. As it turned out, he ended up having plenty of pacers, so I would only be needed for my 10 mile segment. So, I devised a plan to run with David, re-stock my supplies, and continue on to Fish Hatchery (27 miles total) solo. Then I could meet everyone near the finish to bring David in, go back home to sleep, and attend the awards ceremony.

(4AM Start)

That was the plan, but things rarely go according to plan, and this was no different. We met David at each crew-accessible aid station, exchanging his empty bottles for fresh ones, asking how he was doing. Through the first aid station (Mayqueen – mile 13), he was in the top 15, running about 5 minutes ahead of his projected “best pace”. We assumed he would maintain this pace (or at least only fade a bit) heading into the next aid station at Fish Hatchery (mile 23). When he pulled in nearly an hour behind schedule, we knew something was wrong. As it turns out, he had missed a turn and had run off course, costing him 55 minutes. In addition to the actual time lost, he was mentally frustrated with himself for following someone off course. The good news was that he looked good physically, and with 77 miles to go, he had plenty of time to make up ground and achieve his goal of earning a “big” buckle for a sub 25 hour finish.

(Beautiful Morning)

As soon as he left Fish Hatchery, we drove to see him run through Pipeline, only a few miles away. We noticed that he had passed several people on the road between Fish Hatchery and Pipeline. We then loaded up the car and drove to Twin Lakes, a tiny town just south of Leadville. This marked the 40 mile mark of the “outbound” section, and the beginning of the toughest section of the course, the climb up and over Hope Pass, which reaches 12,600’ in elevation. I changed into my running clothes here, knowing I would be pacing within a few hours. The weather could not have been better. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and the temperature was nice and cool. The fact that I was surrounded by majestic mountains sure didn’t hurt either. Just after 11AM, 7 hours into the race, David descended the final pitch and made it to the Twin Lakes Aid Station. As he did all day, David quickly exchanged his empty bottles for fresh ones, wasting no time before he was running through town and heading for Hope Pass. Again, we piled in the car and made the long, bumpy ride to the ghost town of Winfield.

(Coming Through Pipeline)

(David Coming Into Twin Lakes - Mile 40)

(Sean Getting An Update From David at Twin Lakes)

(Hope Pass)

The scene at Winfield is always a fun and busy one, as this is the first place runners can pick up pacers. The fields are full of cars and people, all waiting for their runner to emerge from the long climb up and over Hope Pass. I knew that David planned on carrying 3 water bottles on his journey back over Hope. I also knew that he might decide to use trekking poles on the climb. Leadville is unique in that they race rules allow “muling”, or carrying a runner’s gear. Most races allow pacers but require runners to carry all of their own water, food, etc. The plan was for Dave to carry one bottle mixed with Gu Brew, and for me to carry one bottle of Gu Brew and another of plain water. Each handheld would be filled with 3 gels as well. If he decided to use poles, I would need to carry them when he wasn’t using them. All of this in addition to carrying my own water bottles and food needs. Just part of the fun of being as pacer at Leadville.

David had planned on arriving in Winfield by 1PM for a running total of 9 hours for 50 miles. His detour would certainly add time, and the trip over Hope Pass can wear down even the best of runners. Just before 3PM, we saw Dave running up the road into Winfield, so I got ready to spring into action. He mentioned that he had run out of water and felt dehydrated. He let us know that he intended to use the trekking poles. He also said he was having some issues with a pain in his side when he tried to run. His spirits, however, seemed to be in fine shape. As he and I made our way out of Winfield, David eating watermelon and guzzling water, we joked and talked about adding an extra few miles to the race to make it more of a challenge (since Dave would now be attempting to finish the Leadville 105 mile race).

(Winfield - Mile 50)

We walked the initial section of road leading out of Winfield, then mixed in some jogging. Once we hit the trailhead leading up to Hope Pass, I broke out the trekking poles and handed them to David. I had never used poles before, and my instructions from David’s crew were to just “twist and extend them”. So, this is what I did. I failed to account for the fact that there were different settings to accommodate for different heights. Anyway, it took 5 minutes to get things right, and then we powered up the pass. David was feeling light-headed and needed to stop periodically. This side of Hope is definitely the steeper of the 2 sides, and David had nearly 60 miles on his legs, so stopping was understandable. My goal was to get David back to Twin Lakes in roughly the same time it took him to make the same outbound trip. When we reached the summit of the pass in 1:52, I felt confident that we would get to Twin Lakes in less than 3:45, a very respectable time for this section. We filled up on water at the Hopeless aid station (llamas carry the provisions up to this station) and started jogging downhill. For anyone who has run the Leadville course can tell you, this section is one of the best. It’s very runnable, with nice soft trail and a rushing creek to your left. Some of the best terrain you will find. I love it. David’s side was still hurting, so he wasn’t able to fully maximize this section, but we still made good time. We hit the bottom, waded across the Arkansas River (water was up just past my knees – much lower than I expected), and trudged through the marsh back into Twin Lakes, where I handed David off to his second pacer.

I decided here that I would fill up on water and gels and run back to Fish Hatchery solo. Once there, I could grab more gels out of my car and run more miles. I hoped to log 30-35 miles and then run some the next day. I took my time, munching on a turkey sandwich and watching the runners pass through. I bid farewell to David’s crew, telling them I would see them later that night in town where we would meet up and bring David across the finish line. Not wanting to draw attention to myself as a pacer running the course with no runner, I waited until I saw a lone runner leave the Twin Lakes aid station and head for the trail. I tucked in behind him to make people think I was pacing this guy. He must have heard me because he glanced back once, then again. The second time he asked if I had a runner. I replied no and asked him if he needed a pacer. He replied yes, that having a pacer would be great. Thus began the second leg of my pacing adventure.

My new runner’s name was James, and he was from London. I found out that he received his degree in Geography and that his fiancĂ© was a high school geography teacher like myself. James was now working as a race director in England, putting on three 100 mile races of his own. In addition, he has run numerous races himself, including such monsters as Badwater and UTMB in Europe. We set a brisk hiking pace on the climb out of Twin Lakes, talking to many people along the way. Once the climb topped out, James picked up the pace, and I began to doubt my ability to keep this up for 20+ miles. He was moving fast, and I did my best to keep up. Somewhere along the way he asked how far I wanted to pace. I replied that I’d be happy to pace the entire way back to town if he needed me, which is exactly what I did.

I’ll spare a play-by-play of the last 40 miles, but I had a blast. Running at night in the Rocky Mountains is a fun endeavor. Some of the highlights included the beautiful singletrack sections of the Colorado Trail, the brutal climb over Sugarloaf Mountain (yeah, I’m sadistic), the huge pancakes I ate at Mayqueen, and watching the sun rise in the mountains to the east of town while Mount Massive loomed behind me. I also enjoyed talking to James, who is a really nice guys and a heck of a runner. He ended up finishing in 26:30 (David rallied and finished in 24:47 to earn a big buckle), and I loved every minute of my 40 mile journey (50 miles counting my time with David). I waited around for a couple hours before I managed to find a ride back to Fish Hatchery to retrieve my car. I headed back to the house, showered, and crawled into bed for a couple hours of sleep.

I took many lessons and observations from the 2011 Leadville 100. First, I love pacing and helping runners. It’s fun to run these yourself, but there’s something about pacing that is even more rewarding. Second, I LOVE the mountains. This is nothing new, but running around Leadville just strengthens this feeling. I feel so free and at ease up there, with no care in the world other than where I am going to put my foot next. Third, I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of effect the altitude seemed to have on me. Granted, I “only” ran 50 miles, but I felt great. My legs hurt, but the rest of my body appeared unfazed by the high altitude. Finally, I don’t want to see another Gu Chomp for a LOOOOOOOOOOONG time. I love them, and they worked great for me, but I ate a lot of them during the race. Since I only planned on doing 17 miles before I re-fueled at my car, I didn’t take too much food with me, causing me to rely almost exclusively on the aid stations. Luckily the aid stations at Leadville were fantastic. They all had a wide variety of food and liquids.

I am really glad David asked me to be a part of his Leadville experience, and I am so happy I went. Where else could I have squeezed in a 50 mile training run and had so much fun? The only part that wasn’t fun was the 4 hour drive back to Denver, where my flight was delayed. I crawled into bed just before 3AM. Not the way I wanted to start the school year, but I wouldn’t want it any other way!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Race Report - The Falls 30K

When the temperature nears triple digits during a race, things get tough. When the temperature at the START of a race is over 100, you are setting yourself up for trouble. Such is the life of a trail runner in South Texas during the summer. This past Saturday I ran one of the Cap’n Karl’s Night Series races, this one being held at Pedernales State Park in Johnson City, TX. I have run the 60K version of this race the past 2 years (did 50 miler there last year), so I am fairly familiar with the trails there. There is nothing too technical or unrunnable, which sounds nice but actually makes for a tough race. Since I was still recovering from TRT 100, I opted for the 30K race this year. On the positive side, the race would only consist of 1 loop, which I like. Sure, it would be hot and dark, and I would feel the need to run more of the course at a faster rate than I normally would, but it would be fun. Joe P always puts on a great race, and a bunch of my friends would be running with me.

After spending much of the day indoors, trying to hydrate and stay out of the sun, we drove to Pedernales in the afternoon where we met up with friends and killed time before the race started. The 60K runners would start at 7PM, followed by the 30K race at 7:15, and finally the 10K at 7:30. I watched as many of my friends toed the line for the 60K, and then I waited my turn to run. I carried 2 handheld bottles of HEED, which I had loaded with ice only minutes before the start. In addition, I would be using a new Nathan waist pack that would hold another bottle filled with water. With aid stations every 4-5 miles, I didn’t need 3 bottles, but I wanted to test things out for Wasatch. Having my Ultimate Direction pack on my shoulders really caused some discomfort after awhile at Tahoe, so I’m playing around with a couple waist packs in the hopes of finding something I like.

My plan was to run conservatively at first, and then see what I had left in the last 8-10 miles. I stuck to this strategy for the most part, blowing through the first aid station without stopping (since I had 3 bottles) and running much of the first section. Aside from the brutal heat, I noticed that my ice had melted in my bottles of HEED within 15 minutes. Anyone who drinks HEED can attest to the fact that it tastes very different when it is warm than it does ice cold. As I drank from my bottles a mere 30 minutes into the race, my stomach let me know that I still detest the taste of warm HEED. Still, my legs felt good, so I pushed on despite an unsettling feeling in my stomach.

I pulled into the Pipeline aid station (mile 8.5) and filled my bottles with ice cold water, much of which end up getting dumped on my head. We ran down a road to a trail, where we turned onto single track and headed into the woods. It was getting dark enough to switch on my headlamp, meaning it would become difficult (for me) to run too fast since I would be dealing with the usual tunnel vision from the light. On the bright side, the sun was down and there was a slight breeze. Heck, it might have cooled down to 95 degrees. Darn chilly!!! 3.5 miles around Wolf Mountain (the fact that it is called a mountain still makes me laugh) and we were back up at the Pipeline aid station. Somewhere during this section the combination of heat, warm HEED, and a tightly cinched waist pack sent my stomach over the edge. I only threw up once, but it was a good one J

I filled my bottles again at Pipeline, talked to my friend Mike S, and headed out for the final 6+ miles of the race. My legs felt really good, but my body was not in the mood to run very fast, so I alternated hiking as quickly as I could (good practice for Wasatch) and jogging in places. The last 10K of the race was fairly uneventful, and I finished in 3:29, 17 minutes quicker than my 30K split from last year’s race. Overall I was pleased with my effort, given the fact that I haven’t run anything longer than 8-10 miles in the Texas heat since May. My legs felt good, and I was happy with how the waist pack felt. Most of all, it was nice to be done by 11, much better than my 7AM finish last year in the 50 miler. Getting home while it is still dark is always nice. Everyone in our group did well, highlighted by Larry running a scorching 7:23, good enough for 2nd old guy. I'll be chasing Larry all around the Wasatch Mountains in a few weeks. Should be fun.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Leadville Bound

My friend Dave informed me last week that he was in need of a pacer for this year’s Leadville 100 trail race and asked if I might be interested. I have run in Leadville before, and I have paced the race (2008). If you’ve ever been to Leadville, you know it is a beautiful place and a fun little mining town. My only concern is that Dave is fast – really fast. He regularly finishes in the top 3 in local 50K and 50 mile races. I, on the other hand, regularly finish WAAAAAY behind Dave. And he needs me for the hardest section of the course (return trip over Hope Pass). Did I mention the race is run at an elevation mostly over 10,000’? After much debate, I decided it was really a no brainer. Of course I will go to Leadville to pace Dave. It’s a great experience to pace someone in a 100 mile race, but even better when it’s in the Colorado Rockies.

(Nearing the Top of Hope Pass at the 2008 Training Camp)

(Looking Over Hope Pass at Twin Lakes)

Since I dragged my feet on making a decision (that comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me), flight prices had risen since the time I first checked them. No good. So what did I do? Of course, I delayed even longer, did some stuff around the house, etc. I finally sat down to actually book my flight, and the prices had dropped over $100!!! They are cheaper today than at any time in the previous few weeks. So, I’m headed to Leadville! Can’t wait to sip on a coffee from Provin’ Grounds and eat a pizza from High Mountain Pies. Should be fun.

(Me On Top of Hope Pass in 2008)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Hall Of Fame

I received an email on Saturday that I had been inducted into the hall of fame – the black toenail hall of fame. As I was surfing the web Saturday, I noticed that www.ultrarunnerpodcast had a picture gallery devoted to black toenails and was asking for submissions. Since I had taken a nice picture of my big toe in Colorado, I sent it in. Minutes later I received a congratulatory email. The scary thing is that the picture was taken before I started logging big miles in the mountains and well before the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 (in which I killed another toenail). Here’s the link.

(My Hall of Fame Worthy Toenail)

On the running front, I had a good weekend, logging 10 miles at a muggy McAllister Park on Saturday with my XC team and another decent run Sunday. The legs feel good, but I am still not acclimatized to this heat.