Thursday, January 26, 2012

Shifting Gears

After spending most of my year training for mountain races (or at least longer races with substantial hills), I awlays like to shift my focus for a few months and work on speed. Since my base is good from all the high volume training I do in the summer and fall, I am able to transition to flatter trails and get in some tempo efforts. With that in mind, I will again race the Prickly Pear 50K at McAllister Park here in San Antonio in March. Although I’m not a fan of the 3 loop set up of the race, I find it difficult not to run the only ultra in San Antonio. Plus, I really like to support Bill Gardner’s races, and he always throws a good party. Also, I still have this notion that I can/need to run a sub 5 hour time there. I was right on pace last year until an unexpected bathroom break during the last loop derailed my race. So, I will be back again this year, hoping to break 5 hours. While I’m not abandoning my Bandera and Government Canyon runs, I am trying to log my longer stuff at McAllister and on the roads. It’s a nice break mentally as well as physically, not having to deal with the hills and rocks. And I know that once Prickly Pear is over, I will once again begin to focus on the harder stuff, as I have several gnarly races in the mountains on the slate for the spring and summer. Until then, you can most likely find me running in circles on the blue trail at McAllister Park.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Hot and Hotter: Bandera 100K Race Report

I spent this past Saturday like so many before it, running on the rocks in Bandera. I raced in the Bandera 100K, which for the second year in a row served as the U.S. Trail Running National Championship. I had high expectations for myself going in, having spent the past couple months focusing my training on breaking 13 hours. I felt great going into the race, both physically and mentally. I had run each section of the course (which is comprosed of 2x50K loops) numerous times and felt like I knew the terrain well. I knew the only thing that could stop me would be foul weather. Rain would make the trails muddy and really slow things down. Heat, well, that has always been the biggest obstacle to my performance in races. Sure enough, the forecast called for a beautifully clear day, with temps reaching the 70s. While this doesn’t sound warm (especially considering we routinely run in 100+ degree temps in July in Texas), it feels very warm in January. Oh well, there was nothing I could do about the weather. I just needed to show up, run hard, and see what happened. Here’s my story…


After checking in and chatting with friends, I lined up with 214 other people crazy enough to attempt to run 62 miles over rocky, hilly, cactus-infested terrain. Sounds like a great way to spend the first Saturday of the new year, huh? Having gathered some data from previous training runs, I had made a pacing chart that I would attempt to follow to keep me on target for a sub 13 hour finish. While I had very specific targets I hoped to hit for each section, I wanted to simply run the first 15-20 miles on “feel”, not worrying too much about being ahead/behind schedule. As we scurried down the jeep road that marks the start of each 50K loop, I settled into what I felt was a very comfortable pace. I spotted Chris, Tanya and Jason, Rachel, Stefan, and many others before we hit the first small climb of the day at Big Nasty. After that we were headed up Chris’s favorite trail (sarcasm noted), Sky Island. Despite being relatively short, this trail is rocky and steep, although it does yield some of my favorite views of the park. Down the technical back side we went, over loose rock and steep ledges. I talked with Bill and a fellow from Tulsa, and within minutes we were on the road that would lead us to Ice Cream Hill. Ice Cream is tough at any point in the race, but I was glad we got to tackle it early. Up and over we went, down to Trail 1, where we could hear the music from Bill Gardner at the Nachos aid station.

After battling numerous stomach issues in long races (the last being at Wasatch), I decided to try to race primarily on liquid nutrition in the form of Carbo Pro. I hoped it would be easier on my stomach, and it would cut down on the amount of other stuff I would need to carry with me. I carried 2 bottles from the start, so I was able to blow right through the first aid station without breaking stride. If nothing else, this was a huge mental boost to me. I glanced at my watch, curious (but not worried) about my pace, and was stunned to see that I had made it through Nachos (mile 5.6) a full 9 minutes faster than planned! I told myself not to panic, just to keep running at a comfortable pace and see what happened. The section of trail between Nachos and Chapas is a nice mix of rolling wooded singletrack and open rocky nastiness. While not entirely flat, this section is very runnable, comprised of many short rollers. I tired to run as much as I could, walking very little. My body still felt good, so I assured myself I was doing the right thing. I had allotted myself an hour to complete this section, so needless to say I was shocked when I cruised into Chapas (mile 11) only 51 minutes after leaving Nachos. I was now nearly 20 minutes ahead of my pace chart. Still not quite time to worry. Besides, I knew the warmer temps would come soon, so I thought it might not be such a bad idea to bank a little extra time while it was cool out. I was, however, a bit concerned when I spotted my friend Rachel leave Chapas at the same time as me. She is faster than I am, so if I was up with her, I might be in trouble. Oh well, I was here to race.

(Chapas - Mile 11)

(Leaving Chapas w/ Rachel)

After grabbing 2 new bottles of Carbo Pro from my cooler (I had pre-made 13 bottles for the race), I joined Rachel and jogged out. We had 6 relatively flat miles ahead of us, but Joe (race director) had added an extra half mile on this section to make the overall distance closer to 100K (I had clocked it on my Garmin at just under 61 the previous 2 years). After a mile or two, Rachel began to pull away from me (as expected), but within minutes I heard a voice calling my name from the woods. Was that Rachel? Despite the course being “idiot proofed” (not my words) and well marked, Rachel had missed a turn. To make matters worse, the top 2 men in the 50K race had caught up and mistakenly followed Rachel. They soon found their way back on the correct trail and sped off again. About this time our friend Tanya came zooming past, running like a woman possessed. She was flying. Not far behind was Dave Brown, who was running the 50K and running strong. Dave and I chatted for a moment, and then he was gone (he went on to win the 50K race by nearly 10 minutes in 4:04). The rest of this section was fairly uneventful, with exception of the added section of trail and the emergence of the heat. If there is any place you don’t want to get stuck in the heat, this is the place. With nothing to shade you from the sun, the open field offers no relief. Although starting to feel the effects of the sun and beginning to slow down just a bit, I was pleased with my race up to this point, hitting the Crossroads “In” aid station (mile 17) in under 3 hours.

(Coming Into Crossroads - mile 17)

Not needing new bottles yet, I was able to blow right through the aid station and keep running down Trail 1 towards the next climb of the day, the Three Sisters. Each loop is filled with many hills, most of which happen to come in the last 12 miles. The middle miles are runnable, while either end of the course is up and down. The sun was in full effect now, and just as I had expected, my pace slowed dramatically. Based on a couple great training runs I had with Travis in the weeks leading up to the race, I had high hopes of running up the Sisters. Once up the first hill, I knew the reward was not worth the risk. I might have been able to run them, but I surely would have suffered for it later. I was still able to hike briskly up and jog down. The Three Sisters are totally exposed to the sun, with zero shade in sight. After another few miles, I began the descent back into Crossroads, where 2 fresh bottles of Carbo Pro awaited me. I quickly wiped my face and neck with an ice cold bandana, changed out bottles, and left.

(Liza Howard @ Crossroads)

The heat was out in full force at this point, and I was suffering. My legs felt decent, my stomach was great, but I had no energy. Having been in this position before, I knew the heat was the cause of my discomfort. I also knew that I needed to make forward progress, no matter how slow, and that once the sun started to set I would feel alive again. This is where experience was a huge plus for me. I never considered dropping (as I debated many times last year), despite not feeling great. I tried to run, but my body was having no ne of it, so I reluctantly hiked as quickly as I could. After nearly 3 miles of gradual uphill, I was at the base of Lucky Peak, arguable the toughest climb on the course. Although short, Lucky is steep and full of loose rock. Upon reaching the top (and panting), runners are rewarded with an equally difficult descent down the backside, which is full of treacherous rocks and steep grades. I have fallen numerous times here on training runs, and I was in no mood to duplicate the feat during the race. After safely (i.e. “slowly”) making my way down Lucky, I jogged the short distance to the final aid station, Last Chance (Mile 26), where I was greeted by Olga. After reprimanding me for not drinking enough (my bottles were both still over half full), she filled my bottles with ice and sent me on my way, urging me to keep drinking. It’s hard to believe that 70 degree weather would necessitate drinking over 30 ounces of liquids per hour, but that is exactly what I needed and what I continued to do the rest of the race.

The next 5 miles included 2 big climbs, Cairn’s Climb and Boyle’s Bump, but it is also some of my favorite terrain in the park. The descent down Boyle’s is a blast, probably because you know the loop/race is almost over. Either way, I was looking forward to it. Somewhere between the 2 hills, Chris Russell caught up with me. He’s a tall guy like myself and was feeling the ill effects of the heat as well. We chatted for a bit before he took off ahead of me up Boyles. I trudged along, knowing that my hopes of a sub 13 hour finish were more than likely gone, but still confident that I could salvage my race when things cooled off. I hit the bottom of Boyles and ran down the road, passing several runners who were headed out on their second loop. The half mile stretch that followed was awesome, as runners exchanged greetings and wished each other well. Misery loves company, and we all knew what the other was suffering through. People were hanging out at the lodge (mile 31), cheering runners on, which always gives me a mental boost. I also knew that my friend Kelli would be waiting here to pace me the last 50K. Having company would be nice and might take my mind of the fact that I wasn’t feeling much like running. I had hoped to make it into the Lodge in less than 6 hours, but the heat slowed me down to a modest 6:10 first loop. Not bad, but it was still hot, and although darkness would bring cooler temperatures, it would also make it difficult to run fast over the Bandera rocks, especially on tired legs.

I knew I needed to sit down for a few minutes to hydrate and collect my thoughts, preparing myself for another loop. After downing a bottle of water/Gatorade, Kelli and I set out to finish what I had started. The next 7+ hours were fairly uneventful, but I will try to hit some of the highlights. We played leapfrog with Chris R. for much of the first 17 miles of the loop. Usually, he would pass us on the trail, only to have us pass him at an aid station (imagine that J). I made a conscious effort to drink more, switching between Carbo Pro and a Gatorade/water mix. I ate soup (mostly Ramen), half a turkey wrap, and some mashed potatoes on this loop. Once we hit Nachos (mile 36.6), things started to turn around. I could see the sun getting lower in the sky, and the energy seemed to come back to me. I ran a little more, then even more. By the time we hit Chapas (mile 42), I was feeling good enough to run more than I walked, a far cry from what was happening in the middle miles of the race. When we hit the field section, I once again caught sight of Chris and his bright yellow shirt off in the distance. My new goal became to try to catch (and pass) Chris before the end of the race. Chris met his pacer, Daniel, at Crossroads (mile 48), and after Kelli and I grabbed a few things, the four of us set off down the road. I was feeling much better, so we started to jog ahead and pull away from Chris, who we wouldn’t see again until the finish.

(Chris Russell @ Crossroads)

(At Crossroads w/ Chris and Kelli)

We donned our headlamps, scurried up and over the Sisters, and came back through Crossroads (mile 53) one final time. I knew the race was almost over, and I set my sights on keeping it under 14 hours. We ran most of the flats, hiking the rest. I felt terrific, better than I did at mile 20. Once the sun was gone, my spirits returned, and my legs felt fresh. Over Lucky Peak, Cairn’s Climb, and Boyle’s Bump we went. I stopped in my tracks after seeing a rock that I swore was some sort of bobcat. I kicked a rock so hard that I immediately knew my toenail was a goner (yep, it’s nice and black right now). Once we hit the bottom of Boyle’s, we “sprinted” to the finish, crossing the line in 13:49. While not the sub 13 finish I had hoped for, I ran 10 minutes faster than last year, and given the circumstances involving heat (lots of people were suffering out there), I was pleased with my performance.

Looking back on my Bandera 2012 experience, I take away more positives than negatives. I was very pleased with my overall nutrition. I ran nearly 14 hours and ate ZERO gels and shot bloks. I never had stomach issues, didn’t have to use the restroom, and generally felt good all day. My training and preparation left me feeling good. My legs felt awesome most of the day. My course knowledge helped a ton. Had the weather been cooler, maybe I could have gone under 13 hours. I will definitely be back next year with the same goal. Having Kelli pace me was huge. I’ve been on both sides of pacing, and I know how difficult it can be. Thanks again Kelli! Finally, I had an absolute blast on the trails. 14 hours went by in a flash. I never had that “what in the heck am I doing out here” moment. Running among friends in such a beautiful setting is priceless, and I consider myself lucky to get to do it.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Bundle of Nerves

I’m as nervous about tomorrow’s Bandera 100K as I have been for any race in my life. I’m not sure why. I feel great. My last few weeks of training have gone smoothly, and I am more in tune with the course (training on the course really makes a huge difference) than ever before. So why do I have butterflies? Maybe because I feel so good and things have gone so well. I am aiming for a particular time and know that it will require a near-perfect effort for me to achieve. The forecast is calling for sunny skies and warm temps. Gulp. I keep trying to remind myself to have fun and take what the day brings, but deep inside I know I want to push myself harder than I have before, to see what can happen if things are clicking on all cylinders. When I played basketball, I always got butterflies before a game. It didn’t matter if we were playing the #1 team in the country or the worst team in our league, I always got nervous. So I guess I should be glad that I’m ansy about tomorrow. Either way, I plan on enjoying the company of friends and the beauty of Bandera. Whatever happens, I’ll know that I gave it my best. The only thing left to do now is go eat dinner at Cowboy Pizza in Bandera J

(Bandera 2010 with Chris, Tony, and Domingo - It was 9 degrees at the start!!!)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2012 Race Schedule

As I sat down to look at my proposed 2012 race schedule, I was faced with the same problem as always – so many races, not enough time (or money). I feel that as soon as I check one race off my list, I add three more. I enjoy “racing”, but I generally just like running races to see new scenery and get in a supported run. I tend to pick 3-4 big races a year to focus on, using the rest as training runs. That being said, I’ve put together a tentative list (on the right) of races I’d like to tackle in 2012. I’m sure I will add (or subtract) one or two along the way, but I’m really excited about the schedule I have set out for myself.

I will once again kick off my year with the familiar Bandera 100K. I love Bandera. It’s where we log most of our miles, and Joe P puts on a first class event. Next will be another round of pacing at Rocky Raccoon. I managed to pace 2 folks last year and plan on doing the same this year. Prickly Pear is another local race, one which I am not super fond of (3 loops on relatively flat terrain). I feel bad not running it since it is the only ultra in San Antonio, and I like to support the RD Bill. Depending on our track schedule, I hope to tackle the nasty Zane Grey 50 in Arizona in April for the first time. It sounds like my kind of fun. The summer is filled with mountains, lots of them. I will focus on the San Juan Solstice 50 (another race I have yet to run) in Lake City, CO, but I will sprinkle in some other “races” and pacing duties as well. Finally, I plan on running my big race (100 miles) sometime in September. Once I nail down my team’s cross country schedule, I will know more, but I am hoping to run Superior Sawtooth in Minnesota. Although somewhat under the radar, this one looks like a beast, with a cutoff of 38 hours.

Flat out, I love to run. Running has taken me to great places, and I look forward to many more such adventures in 2012 and beyond.

(Typical Bandera trail)

(Zane Grey)

(San Juan Solstice)

(Superior Sawtooth)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Rocky Mountain High

I love the mountains. I love the way they look, the way they smell, the way they make me feel. There’s just something about being in the mountains that makes me feel alive. I also love music, especially live music. So when I saw that 2 of my favorite bands were playing a series of concerts in Boulder and Denver, I jumped at the opportunity to go. The concerts were a blast, but I was just as eager to hit the trails and log some mountain miles in the 10 days leading up to Bandera.

I had 2 decent runs heading into Friday, but I really wanted to find some relatively snow-free trails to run. After doing a bit of recon at REI and the Boulder Running Company, I determined that my best bet for such an adventure would be to run near Wonderland Lake in Northern Boulder. The foothills had less snow than some of the higher peaks closer to town, which was fine with me after a little “incident” I had with snow and ice a couple days prior. The weather was perfect, with overcast skies, no wind, and temps in the mid 40s. I hit the paved loop that would take me around the lake to the trailhead, where I hoped I could find some elevation since I needed to work in one last good day of hill training. After about a mile of icy pavement, I found what I was looking for.

(Frozen Wonderland Lake)

The trail I encountered went straight up towards some houses perched atop the hill (anyone want to loan me a million bucks to purchase one???). While not super snowy, this trail was very muddy, adding to the difficulty of trying to scramble up this steep ascent. I trudged up and up, sliding backwards with each step in the slippery mud. Up and over, back up again, crossing several large patches of snow that obscured the trail, I made my way to the top (the trail peak just below the summit). Once there, I turned and headed down in a different direction. Man was this section steep! I soon found myself at another intersection, staring right at 3 large deer, who seemed to be wondering what idiot was disturbing their peaceful morning. I decided the trail I had just descended would make the perfect spot to do some hill repeats. After cranking out 5 of them, each time stopping at the top with hands on knees panting, I continued on down the trail. At one point, I crested a ridge and saw 20+ deer bedded down in the grass. Several were large bucks, guys I certainly didn’t want to disturb.

(Trail winding its way up)

(Saw lots of deer)

(Looking down on Wonderland Lake and Boulder)

The rest of the run was fairly uneventful, save for some snow running, beautiful scenery, and numerous marmots. Just as I was about to turn back around and head to the car, I found 2 more trails, one of which climbed up to the ridge and looped around. If only I had more time…Running in the mountains brings me peace, a sense that nothing else matters. For a short time, I am able to push aside all of life’s problems and just be in the moment. Yes, the mountains are fantastic. I ended up with just over 9 miles and roughly 4,000’+ of elevation change. Not a bad day.

(One of several large snow crossings)