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)