Tuesday, April 24, 2012

One Inzanely Tough Race

For the past few years I have heard stories about the Zane Grey 50.  Some regard it as the toughest, most rugged 50 miler in the country.  When asked what makes it so difficult, many laugh and say it’s the rocks.  Hey, I run at Bandera all the time, and we have plenty of rocks there, so how hard can this Zane Grey thing really be?  This year I decided to find out for myself, and I signed up for this classic ultra to be held in the Arizona rim country just north of Phoenix.  When I first signed up, I was excited, both about the race itself and the training it would involve.  Coming off a “flat” 50K in March (Prickly Pear), I was tired of running fast on flat terrain and couldn’t wait to get back onto the hills.  Well, life intervened and took the joy out of running for a bit.  I just wasn’t excited about training, no matter what kind of terrain it was on.  Mentally I just wasn’t into it.  To make matters worse, my ankle hadn’t fully healed from running in all the mud at Prickly Pear, and the pain made running feel uncomfortable.  As if that weren’t enough, I developed a wicked head/chest cold in the week leading up to the race, making it difficult to breathe normally.  If Zane Grey was as tough as some said, I was in deep trouble. 
Despite not being super excited about the race, I relished the opportunity to travel to the mountains and explore a new place.  I love adventure and seeing new things, so I tried to shift my mindset off the race and more to the trip itself.  After my flight to Phoenix was delayed out of San Antonio due to (ironically) a storm that was blowing a cool front into town, I made it to Arizona and drove up to Payson, where I would pick up my packet and stay for the night.  I managed to find a local pizza place that served a mean bbq chicken pie and had live music.  I then packed my drop bags and crawled into bed for a few hours of sleep.
3AM came quickly, and I was soon up and gathering my stuff (coffee in hand) for the 20 minute drive to the trailhead up the road.  On the drive up, I saw a huge elk standing on the side of the road.  If I didn’t k now any better, I would have sworn it was a horse.  What a huge animal!  I arrived at the trailhead, unloaded my drop bags, and sat in the cool night air looking up at a clear, star-filled sky.  It doesn’t get much better than that.  Right at 5AM, the race director sent 126 of us out into the woods, embarking on a 51 mile trek across the Highline Trail, just below the Mogollon Rim.  The first few miles took us up (we would climb nearly 11,000’ on the day), and the pace was very slow and relaxed.  At times I felt like I should pass people, but I decided to hang back and save energy for later in the day.  One thing I noticed early on was that my day was going to be filled with lots of nose blowing and coughing.  Gross, but my cold was here to stay.  After several miles of climbing, we were treated to views of the surrounding mountains with the rising sun coming into view.  This is the point we were treated to our first real taste of the famous Zane Grey rocks.  As advertised, there were plenty of them.  Some moved, others didn’t.  Overall, I felt like the rocks were no worse than sections at Bandera, but there didn’t seem to be much relief.  At Bandera the rocky sections are broken up by runnable sections.  This is not the case at Zane, which I liken to taking the hardest sections of Bandera and running them over and over again.  Nothing I haven’t seen before, but they take their toll over the course of 50+ miles.  Adding to the fun were several downed trees that blocked the trail, as well as ample amounts of overgrowth that cut and scratched my arms and legs as I made my way across this rugged terrain.  Just shy of 2 hours, I arrived at the first (of 5) aid station of the day, Camp Geronimo.

(Mogollon Rim)

(Typical Trail)

(Looking Back Up A Steep Descent)

(Not Much Shade)

My plan was to stick to liquid nutrition (Carbo Pro) as long as I could (I only had 6-7 servings left in my stash, so that would be the most I could get anyway).  Since the first section would be in the cooler weather, I had started with 2 handhelds.  With the sun up and temps already rising, I grabbed my waist belt at Camp Geronimo, giving me an additional 2 bottles to use.  My energy was good, spirits high, and ankle a non-issue.  Things were going great!  Heading out of the aid station, we were treated with another climb.  My uphill climbing muscles felt good, but I was certainly worried that all the uphill would catch up to me later since I hadn’t done much hill training lately.  The next 9 miles went by without any major issues.  I enjoyed chatting with people along the trail, soaking in some stunning views, and just being out on a trail in the mountains.  Life was good.  I pulled into the next aid station (mile 17) in just over 4 hours, pleased with how things were going.  I filled my bottles quickly and headed out, hitting the first (of many) major creek crossing.  

Having done 20 ultras (and several more “ultra” training runs and pacing duties), I am still amazed at how quickly things can change.  In a matter of minutes, you can go from feeling great to being miserable.  The good news is that the reverse can happen as well.  The physical and emotional swings that one endures during a long race are part of the appeal to me.  And for me the physical and mental go hand in hand.  This stretch from mile 17 to the next aid station at mile 23.5 was the worst of my day by far.  The sun beat down, my ankle started to hurt, and my mind wandered.  I thought of everything that was wrong in my life, felt sorry for myself, vowed to never run this race again, and all sorts of other nonsense.  I was convinced that I would drop at the mile 33 aid station.  Then I quickly decided I didn’t have the desire to go past 23.  Yes, I would drop there, hitch a ride back to my car, and sit by the pool at my hotel with a beer in hand.  My race was over.  This wasn’t fun.  I had too much on my mind to focus on running.  Regardless, I couldn’t do anything until I made it to the next aid station, appropriately named Hell’s Gate.  The final couple miles leading into this aid station were brutally hot and exposed.  I was miserable.  But when I arrived there (we were greeted by the aid station captain who welcomed us “to Hell”), I saw that we were in a very remote area, and that I wouldn’t be dropping here unless I wanted to wait a very long time to get back.  Damn.  I would have to continue on another 11 miles to Fish Hatchery and drop there.  Oh well, at least the end was in sight.  The volunteers here warned us of the next 10 miles, saying it would be very hot and offer no shade.  We were instructed to hydrate well and carry as much water as possible.  I was now out of Carbo Pro, so I downed a full bottle of Gu Brew and another of water at Hell’s Gate, then filled up my 4 bottles with ice and fluids before starting the climb out of Hell.  

I felt terrible the first part of the climb.  It was hot, and I was ready to be done.  Near the top of the climb out of the aid station, I stopped to pee.  This was a good sign since I was concerned about being hydrated enough with the rapidly rising temps.  After this quick pit stop, a funny thing happened.  I can’t really describe what “it” is, but anyone who has run enough of these things will tell you that “it” can come out of nowhere.  “It” was a re-birth of sorts, a new lease on life.  I felt a cool breeze pick up, my mind stopped swirling, I stopped the pity party, and I started running.  I wasn’t setting any speed records, but I was actually running, and it felt good!  Within minutes my entire outlook had changed.  Yes, it was still hot, but I could manage this.  Yes, I still had issues I was dealing with mentally, but those could wait.  Not only was I going to make it to the next aid station, but I was going to finish this race.  If I missed a cutoff, so be it.  That was the only way I wouldn’t finish.  I turned on some tunes, and I was off.  With the exception of the final few miles, this section wasn’t as bad as I had envisioned it being.  I did end up giving a lady my water bottle, which was about 1/3 full, after she told me she was completely out of water with 3 miles to go (she would later tell me that I saved her race, although I never got to see her finish).  I ate my first bit of solid food during this stretch, chomping down a packet of Clif Shot Bloks.  My stomach had been cooperating all day long, but I knew I needed to catch up on calories.  Before I knew it, I was dropping down to Fish Hatchery at mile 33, almost 9.5 hours into the race.  
I picked up my Ultimate Direction pack but opted to keep my waist pack on as well, giving me 3 bottles and a full UD bladder.  The volunteers here were especially helpful, filling my bottles once again and sending me on my way (I slammed 2 bottles of Gu Brew and water before heading out).  In what seems to be the norm for Zane Grey, the stretch leaving the aid station involved a rocky climb.  This one was especially gnarly, with the heat and my chest congestion combining to make things interesting.  I slowly plodded on, knowing I had to keep moving if I was going to make the cutoff at the final aid station.  Once through there, I could take as long as I needed to complete the last 6+ miles.  I tried to eat more solid food, consisting of peanut butter crackers, a Honey Stinger Waffle, and a peanut butter Gu.  The heat was in full force, beating down on my neck and arms.  Each turn in the trail seemed only to bring another climb with it.  What little downhill I encountered was strewn with huge rocks, making it very difficult to run.  I tried once to pour some water from a bottle over my head, but it was so hot that it almost did more harm than good.  Each time I crossed a creek I made sure to dip my hat in the cold water, even if it only provided temporary relief.  Although my stomach felt fine, nothing sounded good, and what little bit I forced down wasn’t enough to keep my energy levels from fading.  I knew I would need an extended stay at the final aid station, but I had to get there first.  This section was by far the longest of the day, taking me 3.5 hours to cover 11 miles, which is exactly how long the race director had said it would take most people to cover this stretch.  All things considered, I was pleased with my progress here. 

(Headed Down)

(Just One Of Many Climbs)

(The Grass Hid Some Rocks)

Upon arriving at the See Canyon aid station, I plopped down in a chair and let the wonderful volunteers do their work (one commented that I looked exhausted).  They re-filled my bottles, made me a pb&j sandwich (of which I ate half), and re-filled my bottles once again after I drained 2 of them.  After nearly 15 minutes, I thanked everyone for their help and shuffled out of the aid station.  Shortly after leaving See Canyon, I encountered a man who was there to pace a friend.  He informed me that I had a relatively smooth climb out of the canyon, followed by mostly flat and downhill terrain to the finish.  This bolstered my spirits and seemed to motivate me to find an extra gear.  I was able to power hike this section pretty quickly, passing several people on the climb out of the canyon.  Once I crested the climb, I began running, slowly at first, then faster as I tried to utilize the fading daylight before turning on my headlamp (which I would do with 3 miles to go).  It reminded me a bit of the last few miles of the Wasatch 100 in September, when my legs felt great at the end.  I put my headphones back in and set down to business, passing 5 more people in this stretch.  As I neared the finish, I glanced at my watch and realized I might have a chance to make it to the end in under 15 hours.  I had long since given up on any time goals, but sub 15 sounded pretty good at this point, so I pushed and crossed the line in 14:59 for my first Zane Grey finish.  Jay Danek and his wife Traci were there to cheer me on, having waited nearly 3 hours after finishing to give me a ride back to my car.  After collecting my pet rock (I named him Herbert) and finisher’s jacket, I grabbed my bags and loaded up in Jay’s car for the ride back to the start.

Although my race didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped (due mostly to my chest cold that made breathing difficult and coughing frequent), I am extremely pleased with my Zane Grey experience.  I was able to see for myself that Zane Grey is in fact the toughest course I have ever run.  I battled through some low points mentally and came through a stronger runner and person.  I battled many emotions, but I feel like my head is clear now, and I have a renewed sense of what I need to do in my life.  Another positive takeaway from the race was that my liquid nutrition plan seemed to work, even in the extreme heat (which reached nearly 90 degrees).  In 15 hours, the only solid food I consumed was 8 peanut butter crackers, one half a pb&j sandwich, a Honey Stinger Waffle, one GU, and 2 packages of Shot Bloks.  The rest of my calories came from Carbo Pro and Gu Brew.  Never once I did my stomach feel uneasy, and I never had to eat ginger.  My ankle bothered me a bit starting at mile 10, but it never got any worse or caused me any significant pain.  My legs felt amazing nearly the entire race.  When I couldn’t run, it generally wasn’t because of tired or sore legs.  2 days later I have zero pain or soreness at all.  I am 100% convinced that my weekly strength training sessions are the reason my legs feel so good.  I haven’t run a hill since January, yet I felt good on Saturday.  Another ultra is in the books, number 21 all time for me.  I will definitely be back for another edition of Zane Grey in the future.  For anyone wanting to test the limits of their mental and physical abilities, I highly recommend the Zane Grey 50 miler.  It is just as rugged and beautiful as advertised. 
To top it all off, I flew from Phoenix to Vegas to visit my sister and her husband and their 6 week old baby, Mason.  Uncle Brian had a great time ☺

(My Nephew Mason)

Friday, April 20, 2012

Headed To the Oven

I am on my way to Pine, AZ (north of Phoenix) to run in the Zane Grey 50 miler on Saturday (it’s actually 51 miles). Any race that bills itself as “the toughest, roughest, and most beautiful 50 mile trail run in the country” is something I knew I just had to try out for myself. Rocky terrain, overgrown trails, large washouts, and searing heat are just some of the things I have to look forward to this weekend. With temperatures expected to be 15 degrees warmer than the “average” year at ZG, I am fully expecting a suffer-fest. To make matters worse, I am under-trained (just haven’t felt like running a lot lately), nursing an ankle injury (suffered from running a muddy 50K in March), and in the midst of a wicked head/chest cold. On all my runs here in San Antonio (about 1,000’ above sea level), I have felt like I was sucking air through a straw. That should make things interesting at 6,000+’, where much of the Zane Grey course lies. But hey, if these things were easy, I wouldn’t be doing them, so what’s a little more suffering J

I typically set 3 goals heading into a race (usually based on an expected finish time), but considering my current mental and physical state, I am setting one simple target – FINISH. I have no idea what to expect from my body, but I refuse to give up or drop out. The only way I won’t finish is if race officials physically remove me from the course, which will only happen if I’m injured or have missed a cutoff. Otherwise, I will slug it out and see what happens. My intention from the start with this race (even when things were looking better) was to enjoy myself and see what all the fuss is about at Zane Grey. So, bring on the pain, suffering, and fun! If nothing else, it’s a great chance to be alone and lose myself (not literally) in nature.

(Typical Zane Grey Terrain)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Rules To Live By

As I was cleaning out the desktop on my computer yesterday, I ran across something someone had shared awhile ago. They are "rules of living", things that we should (in my opinion) try to do every day of our lives. It really got me thinking. I have trouble with some of these, and I know I need to work on them. I definitely stray from some of these "rules", but I am making a conscious effort to get back to them. #1 and #4 are especially difficult for me. I am really glad I read these again and feel they will help me get to where I want to be in life.

1. Don’t worry about what other people think. Make decisions based on what my heart tells me.
2. Show the people I love just how much I love them.
3. Don’t dwell on the past.
4. Don’t be afraid to speak my mind and spill out what my heart wants to say.
5. No regrets.
6. Live each day as if it were my last. It just might be.
7. Don’t let something good slip away. Grab it and hang on for dear life.

I tried to link this video but had trouble doing so. Great song by one of my favorite bands.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Walking In Memphis

This past Friday I flew home to Memphis to attend a reception for my high school basketball coach, who had won his 1000th game this season and was retiring. To say he is a great coach is an understatement. Not only is he a great coach, but he is also a great man. I learned many things about basketball and life from Jerry Peters. Some of my fondest memories came while playing high school basketball. It was great to see former teammates and friends from high school, some of whom I haven’t seen in 15+ years. 1000 wins is an amazing accomplishment, especially when you consider Coach Peters did it all at one school. Imagine winning 20 games each season (which many would consider a great year) for 50 YEARS IN A ROW!!! After the banquet I headed out to dinner with my parents. I don’t get to go home as often as I’d like, so I really relish any opportunity I have to spend time with my family.

(High School Glory Days - I'm #54)

(My mom and I)

I got to sleep later on Saturday than I have in a long time, which was nice since I felt like I was running on fumes for the past week or more. It was also nice to relax and be free of stress, if only for a couple days. I squeezed in a nice (weather-wise) effort on the roads near my parents’ house before meeting my bother and his family for some good ole’ Memphis BBQ (which I still think is WAY better than Texas style). After gorging myself on nachos and a BBQ plate, it was time for a nap. After my nap, I hit the pool for some leisurely reading (another endeavor I don’t get to do too often) and time hanging out with my mom. Dinner was a seafood feast (I eat well when I am home) consisting of crab legs, shrimp, potatoes, and corn. Boy was it good.

(BBQ Nachos From Germantown Commissary)

(Seafood Feast Prepared By My Mom)

On Sunday I awoke early to grab a cup of coffee before my run. I had arranged to meet a couple local trail runners, Nick Lewis and Billy Simpson, both of whom are fast and have tons of ultra running experience. Although I was born and raised in Memphis, I was never a trail runner (or a runner of any kind) during my time there and had only run one trail in the city, usually on my visits during Thanksgiving or Christmas. Nick had graciously agreed to take me out to Shelby Forest for a tour of the more technical trails Memphis had to offer. I really had a great time on the run. The trails were beautiful, wooded singletrack, with lots of short climbs and rolling hills. Aside from the occasional root (and the fear of ticks), I had not a care in the world. The run would have been much better had I not been in the early stages of a nasty head and chest cold (which I still have 2 days later) that forced me to labor in my breathing. All of that aside, I enjoyed seeing the local trails and definitely plan on going back the next time I’m home for a visit. On the way home I stopped at Republic Coffee (per Nick’s recommendation) and enjoyed a cup of Memphis’ finest java. After a late breakfast (still my favorite meal) with my parents, I hit the sack for a quick nap before heading to the pool for one last swim. Too quickly I was headed to the airport to fly back home, a flight that only made my head cold worse.

(Typical Trail At Shelby Forest)

I had a great time this past weekend. My only regret is not getting to go home more often.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Good Friday

This past Friday I was off from school, so I decided to head out to Bandera for some trail running fun. Jean and Larry rode out with me to enjoy the clear (yet somewhat cool) weather. We hit all the usual hills (Lucky's, Cairns, Boyles, Ice Cream, etc) and enjoyed the scenery. It has been awhile since I've tun out there, and it felt good to get back onto the rocky, hilly terrain I love so much. Enough of this flat stuff I've been training on lately. After the run I headed up to Austin to catch a Yonder Mountain String Band show at Stubbs. If you never seen a show there, you are really missing out. We managed to get VIP seats, and the band put on a great show as usual. The next day I headed up to Dallas to visit my brother and his family and to catch Yonder again. The show had to rank in my top 3 of all time, at least in terms of the setlist. I had a blast. Music, friends, and great trails. Not a bad way to spend the weekend.

(Beautiful Bandera Sunrise)

(Looking at the 3 Sisters From Atop Sky Island)

(Larry and Jean Making Their Way Up Lucky's Peak)

(View From VIP Area at Stubb's)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Bloody Knees and Warm Porter

Yesterday found me running over rocks and through the wildflowers of Government Canyon. It was a beautifully clear day. Humid, yes, but at least no rain in sight. 10 of us (11 if you count Buster, Tanya and Jason’s dog) set out for a loop in the frontcountry, followed by a nice jaunt through some of the backcountry. By mile 3 I was dripping wet, and by mile 8 my feet were sliding around inside my soaked shoes. I guess this marks that time in the season when running starts to become more of a chore for me than an enjoyable endeavor. Sure, I still love getting out on the trails, but I have to remind myself that I am doing this for a particular race in the future. It’s less about the moment and more about the end goal. That being said, I had a great time hanging out with friends on the trail yesterday. I’m nowhere close to where I want to be mentally, but I was happy to get out and run. Rosie managed to gash her knee pretty good coming down Wildcat Canyon, but she handled it like a champ. Afterwards, Tom and I enjoyed a warm porter (he dropped a beer and needed to drink it) and told stories of hoops glory (or dreams of such). Not a bad way to start the day.