Wednesday, October 2, 2013

URoC - Ultra Race of Champions

100 kilometers from Breckenridge to Vail.  The Ultra Race of Champions was to be my capstone race of the year.

Driving over Vail Pass the afternoon before the race, the temperature read 33 degrees, the snow was blowing sideways, and I was wishing I hadn’t put off getting new tires.

Being a cheapskate, I’m normally happy to sleep in the back of my car the night before a race.  This time, I thought we could make a nice family weekend out of it, so I splurged for a two night stay at the host hotel in the heart of Vail.  I got there in plenty of time to check in and re-pack my 4 drop bags before the pre-race meeting.

I had downloaded the maps and aid station/mileage charts as soon as they were posted and had poured over them for hours, calculating my pace over every single mile, adding in time at the aid stations.  As I sat in the pre-race meeting, listening to the course description and trying to follow along on my map, I was more and more confused.  There were climbs that I didn’t see on my maps and the mileage didn’t quite match.  I tried not to worry too much, as no one else around me seemed to be concerned.  Then they told us to expect knee-deep snow going over the Ten Mile range.  Now I was starting to worry.

After a short break, they assembled the elite runners for a round-table interview.  This was truly inspiring and intimidating – more than a dozen of the top ultra-runners in the world.  Not the state, not the country, but the world – France, Norway, Italy, Mexico, etc.  They each politely dodged the question of who was going to win, but what made my heart stop was when they were asked what the winning time would be – 10 hours!  Holy crap.  I was assuming the winning time would be closer to 8 hours.  I figured that if I had a decent day out there, I would finish in 1.5x the world class winning time – 8 hours for the top pros, 12 to 13 hours for me.  Now the equation changed dramatically – 10 hours for them would mean 15 for me!  That would be a very long day.  I quickly went from being nervous to being downright scared.  I dodged back to the hotel room, got a spare headlamp and threw it into an earlier drop bag, just in case.

Brenda and the girls were going to be coming in late, so I sat in our room, had a dinner of hummus and flat bread, then sewed my hand-held water bottle straps.  After saving my hands on a number of falls, they were starting to come apart.  By the time they finally drove in, I had to carry both girls to our room and they quickly went to sleep.  I, unfortunately, was not so lucky.  I tossed and turned for hours, trying unsuccessfully not to worry too much about what lay ahead.  By the time the alarm went off at 4:00 AM, I had totaled less than 2 hours of intermittent sleep.

Everything was carefully laid out the night before, so I quickly and quietly went through my pre-race prep and headed out to the lobby to hop onto a shuttle van that would take us over to Breckenridge for the start.  With the start scheduled for 7:00 AM, we were all grumpily wondering why we had to leave Vail at 4:30, for what should be a 45 minute drive.  Turns out the race director and the drivers were all nervous about getting us there on time, and with good reason.  Vail pass had been shut down for a period of time overnight.  The roads were still slick and the going was a bit slow, but we got there in plenty of time and the running store that was hosting the start had enough room to keep most of the runners out of the early morning chill.  I got to mingle with lots of runners from all over the country.  I even ran into Shannon, the Breckenridge police chief.  I had met her a year earlier at the Rocky Mountain Program and knew she was a runner also.

One week ago, at the Javalina Jangover race outside of Phoenix, the starting temperature was 99 degrees.  Now it was in the mid 20’s – a full 75 degrees colder!  The whole evening before, I kept waffling about what to wear on the course.  I wound up going with two thin long-sleeved jersey’s, shorts, a thin hat, and gloves that I that didn’t think were going to be adequate.  I had also found a few left over hand-warmers and had one inside my glove.

I tried to wait as long as possible to take off my sweats, but waiting even a couple of minutes for the gun to start was a combination of cold and nervous shivering.  And then we were off.  Boy, it felt good to be actually running after all the nerves and anticipation.  As has happened in the past few races, no one seemed to want to be at the front (expect for the pros), so I wound up starting much further up than I would have preferred.  That didn’t last long, as runners streamed past me.  I know a few were simply better than me, but for most of them I was thinking “Hey guys, there’s 62 miles to go.  What’s the rush?”

After a short bit on the pavement, we hit a gravel road and then made our way straight up a ski slope.  This was the first modification from the maps that I had relied on.  What I had initially planned on as a 2.4 mile, 200’ gain leg to the first aid station at Grand Lodge had been upped to 5.8 miles and 1,500’.  After that initial climb, things settled into a gently rolling trail down to Frisco.  It was nice and cool in this shaded section, with a little bit of snow and some intermittent ice patches that I was able to navigate around.  Despite having to stop every 20 minutes due to over-hydration, I fell into a bit of a rhythm and was able to have some nice conversations with runners from all over the country.

With the additional mileage and climbing, I got into Frisco almost an hour behind schedule, so I wasn’t at all surprised that Brenda and the girls weren’t there.  I was actually rather relieved that they weren’t sitting around waiting.  The aid station was very well stocked, as had been advertised.  I filled bottles, got some snacks and then found my first drop bag.  I tentatively made the decision to drop one of the long sleeve shirts since we were going to be climbing soon.  I did take my Ultimate Direction running pack with a jacket in the back, and snack pockets in front.

A bit out of Frisco, we started climbing up a rough forest service road.  One of the runners with headphones in his ears almost got knocked off the side by a passing pickup truck and trailer.  He was pretty annoyed and rude to the driver, but it was his own damn fault.  I tried to warn him but he didn’t hear me until the last second and then he seemed to think that sharing the road was a foreign concept.  That driver did nothing wrong and he had as much of a right to the road as we did.  I hate it when jerks like that are stupid and rude, making it tougher for the rest of us. 

Just before we got to the next aid station at Miners Creek Road, I passed a gal who wasn’t looking so good.  Apparently she was feeling the altitude and throwing up repeatedly.  Much to my amazement, her plan was to continue on past the aid station, climb 3,500’ over the Ten Mile range and drop out at Copper, where her friends were waiting for her.  I tried to nicely relay to her that it would be stupidly dangerous.  I’m not sure what she decided in the end.  Hopefully the volunteers were able to dissuade her.

After the Miners Creek Road aid station we were back on the trail and climbing up toward the Ten Mile Range.  I was feeling pretty good, pacing myself just right.  By the time we got up close to tree line, the snow was getting deeper and I started to pass more runners.  It was beautiful up there, though I was glad that others had broken the trail before me.  It was mainly packed, with some intermittent post holes.  I opened up another hand warmer as the wind was picking up.  Luckily it was mainly coming from behind.  A few runners were clearly struggling with the altitude, but I loved being up there, though I was wishing I had brought a pair of sunglasses.  12,500’ with fresh snow and a clear, sunny sky can be pretty blinding.  At times I was alternating keeping one eye open at a time.  The last thing I wanted was to suffer from snow blindness, especially once it got dark.

Though the trail was packed, parts of it had enough of a side camber that it took some effort not to slide off.  Where it leveled, I was able to run.  There were quite a few false summits to the pass and I was pleased when I finally hit the real top.  In the mid 30’s, with a 15 mph wind, it was pretty chilly, but I didn’t want to stop.  I knew that even the one minute that it would take to get my pack off and put the jacket on would send me shivering.  I figured I would be fine as long as I kept moving and soon enough, I would get back down into the trees.  It was truly beautiful up there and running down the other side on a snow packed trail was a blast.

The decent towards Copper felt good after the long climb, but I was having so much fun, I made the mistake of sticking with an Italian runner from Connecticut.  About 2/3 of the way down, I realized that I was moving way too fast for this early in the race.  I eased up and enjoyed the undulating downhill.  I was happy to get down to the bottom and figured we would cross the road and quickly head on into Copper Mountain Village for the next aid station.  Wrong.  This was another of the route changes from my maps.  We actually turned south, headed part way up the ski slopes, then traversed across before finally dropping down to the aid station.

I was about an hour and a half behind my predicted time and was not too happy about the unexpected detours.  As I stopped to resupply, Kirstyn and Amy came running up behind me.  I was thrilled to see them, even though it was only for a minute.  I felt bad because Amy wanted to show me a rock snake that she was making and I was in such a rush to move on.  As I ran out, I told Brenda I had no freaking idea as to when I would be at what aid stations.  I had given her a detailed breakdown, but with all the changes, it wasn’t worth it for them to be sitting around indefinitely.

I looked for the course out of the aid station when I was pointed right back the way I had come.  Instead of getting on the bike path as I had anticipated, we headed straight up the ski slope.  Now I was really unhappy.  Not only did we have this climb to deal with, but also some sloppy muck to navigate through.

After the seemingly needless climb, we eventually made our way back down and onto the paved bike path.  I had been pretty conservative in planning my pace on this section and had secretly hoped that I could make up some time.  Unfortunately, with fatigue starting to take its toll (in addition to my unhappy attitude), I wasn’t able to make up any time at all.  The climb was relatively slow.  Going down the other side, I was able to roll along at a decent pace, but still not making up any real time.  A couple of miles down from the top of Vail Pass was the next aid station.  On most races, I’m looking for ice to put in my bottles or down my shorts.  With the temperature starting to cool off again, I enjoyed some warm chicken noodle soup.  Not only did the salty soup taste good, but it was served up by none other than Geoff Rose, one of the top ultra-runners in the world.  In what other sport can an average schmuck like me be served by a world class athlete?

There was a slight but cool headwind coming down off the pass, until we got back into more trees.  I hooked up with another runner and we stuck it out until the next aid station at Two Elks trail where we would finally turn off the pavement.  I don’t mind running on pavement that much, but being right up against the interstate, and compared to the beauty of the rest of the course, this was my least favorite part.  Killian Jornet was chided by some for calling this section “boring”.  I’m assuming these critics didn’t actually run the course, because I would definitely agree with him.  I don’t know if there would have been a better way to connect from Copper to Two Elks, but maybe they can figure something out if this race course is utilized again.

Once off the pavement, the Two Elks trail crossed under the highway and started climbing up a valley.  The bottom was moist from the dripping trees, yet still reasonably warm from the sun.  As we climbed farther up, the snow got a bit deeper and the temperature fell.  It wasn’t too cold so clumps of snow would periodically fall from the trees, but luckily none plopped down on my head.  That would not have been fun.  The climb was long and I was getting tired so I kept to a pretty conservative pace.  I still managed to pass a couple of runners and by the time we got up above the trees, I felt stronger and passed a few more.  This upper section of Vail Mountain, heading up to the Two Elks Lodge aid station was gorgeous, but unfortunately the previous night’s snow had melted into nasty, gooey mud.

At the aid station, I enjoyed some more warm soup as I re-stocked my supplies.  I took the extra headlamp with me as I wasn’t completely sure I would get to the Minturn before dark.  I was also going to enjoy a refreshing and hydrating can of club soda.  I had put one in each drop bag.  When I reached in, I felt a soggy shirt and a very light and empty can.  Apparently it had made too quick of a trip up the 3,000’ in altitude and had exploded inside the bag.  Luckily it’s nothing but carbonated water and I didn’t need the extra shirt.

The next mile and a half were even more unpleasant than the asphalt.  What would have been an easy jaunt on the dirt service roads at the top of the ski area became a slippery slog through more mud.  I let a few choice words fly as I was slipping this way and that, but eventually, we got back onto a trail.  This section heading down to Minturn was one of my favorites - gently downhill rolling single-track, with the sun setting on hillsides of golden aspen.  It was just beautiful.  I wish I had carried a camera, but I’m way too stingy with any extra ounces.

It was on this section that I hooked up with Rick Valentine from Idaho.  He caught up to me near the top and I thought he would just pass me, but he stayed on my tail the whole way down.  It was nice to have someone to chat with and share the beautiful scenery.  Neither one of us had a GPS so we guestimated our progress and were disappointedly corrected when we came up upon a couple of hikers and runners lower down.

We finally made it into the small town of Minturn, right around the 12 hour mark and just before it got dark.  I reloaded my supplies, grabbed my better headlamp, and headed back out through town chugging a can of Coke (good thing that didn’t explode in my drop bag).  Rick caught up to me shortly and we flicked on our lights as we navigated back onto the trail for the final climb of the day.  Only 10 more miles to go, but there was still a 2,500’ climb in front of us.

Shortly after we hit the trail, we caught up to Mark, from Breckenridge.  Given how we caught him, I thought we might just pass on by, but Mark wasn’t ready to be passed.  He kept motoring on up the climb with me and Rick following.  Parts of the climb were steep, but other areas were more moderate and these guys started running.  I wouldn’t have been running if I was on my own at this point, but I didn’t want to get left behind, so I walked when they walked and ran when they ran.  I was amazed and proud of myself that I could actually run uphill after 60 miles!

It was a beautiful, clear, and dark night as we made our way back up to Vail Mountain.  The stars were magnificent, though I couldn’t look up for long.  We eventually arrived at the top of the Vail gondola and our final aid station.  I had a cup of Coke and asked one of the very helpful volunteers to pull my jacket out of the pack.  I hadn’t used it all day, but with the temperature dropping and my energy reserves running low, I knew I would need it to keep warm.

After navigating a bit more mud at the top, we got on the dirt road that would take us down the mountain and to the finish line.  They told us 4.5 miles to go at the top, but it turned out to be 6.  I ran pretty well, but Rick and Mark broke away as they were stronger and more fearless.  That final descent seemed to take forever.  There were lots of switchbacks going back and forth across the face of the mountain and the lights at the bottom were only slowly getting closer.  The road was smooth, with intermittent soft spots and the light of the headlamp shone hypnotically in front of me.  I had stayed upright all day and I didn’t want to do a face plant so close to the end.

I hadn’t bothered to look at my watch for quite a while but from Minturn, I had calculated that we would finish somewhere around 14:30.  When I crossed the line, with bright lights blinding me, the clock read 14:27:21!  Almost 5 hours and 16 miles longer, and 4,500’ more climbing than any run I have ever done.  I was ecstatic, but it got even better.  Being almost 9:30 PM, I figured Brenda and the girls were long asleep, but no.  Kirstyn and Amy came running out of the shadows for a big hug.  I was shocked and thrilled that they had stayed up to share this moment with me.

I would have been happier knowing the correct course before the start and not having to deal with the sloppy mud, but oh well, that’s what ultra-running is all about, dealing with the unexpected.  The course had magnificent sections like the snowy, alpine crossing of the Ten Mile range and the incredible golden aspens on the back side of Vail Mountain.  Even better were all the connections that I made with various runners along the way, especially Rick and Mark who practically pulled me up the final climb.

This was an awesome and epic race.  I was so scared before the start and so proud after the finish.  My overall placement (36th out of 78) was one of the worst I’ve ever had, but I couldn’t be happier.  Half of the runners in front of me were pros and 45% of the field didn’t even finish.  I know it’s still a 50% increase in mileage and 20% increase in elevation gain to Leadville, but I feel like I am a huge step closer

Monday, September 23, 2013

Javalina Jangover Night Run 50K

Before I even toed the start line of the Javalina Jangover, I had amassed a slew of excuses as to why I wouldn’t do well:
·         Less than 5 hours of sleep each of the two previous nights
·         Race day breakfast – one apple
·         Race day lunch – ¾ of a pizza + a heavily frosted cupcake (nephew’s birthday)
·         Spent the entire race day at a water park in the 103 degree Phoenix sun, running up stairs and treading water to keep up with my daughters
·         Race start temps plummeted down to 99 degrees!
·         I forgot my Garmin watch, so I would have nothing to pace myself with or track my progress
·         Severe I developed stomach issues during the 3rd quarter of the race, necessitating a couple of pit stops
·         My headlamp died with 3 miles to go

None of the runners doing the 50K wanted to get too close to the start line, so I ended up right near the front – 4th place in the first ¼ mile.  After a little more settling in over the first mile, I was somewhere in the top 10 and taking it pretty easily, at least I think I was taking it pretty easily, without the Garmin, I had no real way of telling.  Surprisingly, the pace felt quite comfortable, despite the temperature – must have been the “dry” heat.  I wasn’t sweating much and kept my breathing under control.

The sun was setting just as we set out at 6:00 PM, and we were able to save the headlamps for the first ½ hour.  The trail started out as sandy but soon climbed and became rockier.  About 4 miles in, I heard footsteps slowly catching up to me. A guy named Daryl passed, but since I was feeling pretty comfortable, I thought I’d try to keep up with him.  Shortly thereafter, another runner a little ways in front called out to warn us of the first wildlife encounter of the night, a snake.  It’s true what they say – the desert really comes alive at night.

The headlamps were soon flicked on and I quickly realized that my light, though a bit bulky, was considerably brighter than any of the others and illuminated a nice large area.  Having only done short spurts of running in the dark, at an early race start or the end of a late training run, I expected it to be much more difficult and fatiguing.  It really wasn’t bad at all.  I had to make an effort to look up ahead, just like day running, and not get mesmerized by the ground right under my feet, but once I gained confidence in my feet, it really was just like running in the daylight.

I used up my 2 gels early on and was ready for more calories by the time I hit the first aid station.  I filled up on ice water (yes, they had ice!) but discovered they had no gels or other snacks that were easily runnable.  Not wanting to lose Daryl, I grabbed a handful of dates and sped off after him.  My hands got a bit sticky and the dates were not pitted, but they tasted good and seemed to be OK with my stomach.

As we continued on, we slowly started to catch some of the 75 and 100K runners who had started out earlier.  We were keeping up a pretty good pace, but I was feeling fine.  After taking a quick break to water a cactus, I was even able to catch back up with Daryl within a couple of hundred yards.  I was tempted to keep up the accelerated pace and sprint by, but I knew that we weren’t even half way done yet.  As we got closer to the start/finish/halfway point, we caught up to more of the long distance runners and a few returning runners – Aravaipa set up the race via a 25K loop, with 50, 75, and 100K runners reversing the loop each time.  This turned out to be brilliant, as I wasn’t really alone until the last ¼ of the race.

I stayed right on Daryl’s heels for over 11 miles, right until we got to the turn-a-round.  I glanced up into the bright lights and was elated to see the clock at 2:12:23, well below my original goal of 2:30.  While the volunteers loaded my bottles with ice, I swallowed about 4 heaping spoonful’s of M&M’s and a couple of cookies – I wanted to keep the calorie intake up.

I tried to make the stop brief and soon took off, expecting Daryl to follow on my heels.  I kept looking back, but there was no headlamp to be seen.  I kept a decent pace, even though the trail was climbing again and soon, my stomach started to rebel.  I don’t know if it was due to the excessive chocolate M&M’s or if overindulging in birthday pizza at lunch was finally catching up.  I kept hoping it would pass, but it only got worse and I had to make a couple of quick, but careful, detours into the cacti.

This 3rd quarter of the race was the most “social” as I came across oncoming runners every minute or less.  The strings of headlamps were pretty cool and clearly delineated the trail before me.  They all had encouraging words for me, but given my gastrointestinal issues, I didn’t reciprocate as I normally would have.

I motored on, and by the time I hit the outer aid station again, the oncoming runners had ceased, but so had my stomach problems.  More ice, a couple of cookies, and I was off again.  This last quarter of the race was by far the most solitary, but it didn’t bother me at all.  I enjoyed the quiet darkness and tried to maintain a decent pace though I was starting to tire.  At one point, I looked up and saw the brightest meteor I have ever seen in my entire life!  It lasted for at least 3 seconds.

I had intended to swap headlamp batteries at the last aid station, but the light was still bright and I didn’t want to waste any time.  Now, the light was clearly dimming, but I still didn’t want to lose time stopping.  The terrain got a little rockier and with about 3 miles to go, I decide that I could push a little faster with a fresh battery.  I should have known there was a problem and quit when I clicked the switch and the light didn’t turn off, but I figured that removing the battery would simply reset the circuitry.  Wrong!  I put the fresh battery in, clicked the switch, clicked it again, and again, and again.  Nothing.  The damn thing wouldn’t turn on.  Now, instead of a dimmed light, I had none at all.  There were no runners to be seen behind me, so waiting around would do no good.  Luckily, the moon was only a couple of days past full and there were very few clouds in the sky.  The trail was still rocky, but I jogged my way along while my eyes slowly adjusted to the low light.  Pretty soon, I felt comfortable running at full speed, or at least what felt like full speed after more than a marathon in the desert.  The only sketchy parts that were the cacti and shrubs which cast shadows across the trail that were difficult to discern from rocks and holes.  I also kept telling myself that the wildlife had retired for the night.  Up until my light died, I had jumped over 2 snakes (neither were rattlers) and 5 tarantulas.

Surprisingly, I never tripped, nor was bitten by any stalking critters and as the lights of the distant finish came into view, I stepped it up for a final push.  I broke into camp, into the blinding light, and crossed the line in 4:31:05, almost half an hour faster than my goal time of 5 hours and less than a minute off of my 50K PR!  Even better, the race director congratulated me on finishing 3rd!  Another podium finish, and out of 60, that was awesome.

I hung around for a bit and drank up at least a liter of Ginger Ale, one Dixie cup at a time.  There was plenty of food at the finish, but I just wasn’t ready to eat.  I stretched, loosened up, and cheered on other finishers for a while.  When I got back to the car, the panel showed that the temperature had dropped another 10 degrees since the start, to a comfortable 89.  Normally, I suffer when the mercury rises above 70 and here I was almost shivering when a slight breeze came along.

Araviapa put on an awesome race!  I’ll be running their McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50 miler in December, and I can’t wait to do another one of their night runs.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Pikes Peak Double 2013


Saturday started a little bit off even before the race.  I got there around 6:10 and had a much harder time finding parking than in previous years.  It wasn’t a real problem, just messed up my rhythm.

The temperature was pretty mild right before the start, so I was able to check all my stuff in the summit bag and still feel comfortable waiting around the last 10 minutes.  The forecast was for a sizzling 85 degree high in Manitou and upper 40’s on the Peak.  That wouldn’t present too much of a problem for the Ascent, as you’re climbing away from the heat, but cooler temps and cloud cover would have been nice.

One of my favorite parts of the Pikes Peak races is listening to America the Beautiful as you’re staring up at first rays of sunshine hitting the finish line, 8,000’ above.  It’s definitely a unique experience.

I tried to place myself in a reasonable spot, not too close, yet not too far from the front.  Unfortunately on the Pikes Peak races, more than on any others, people either have no clue how to pace early on, or they just don’t give a damn about the other runners.  Right from the gun some people were barely moving while others were trying to zip by all around.  I know this sounds arrogant, but it was pretty clear that most of these runners should not have been sprinting at this stage.  There’s nothing more distracting and annoying than running along someone who’s gasping for air, 1 mile in and 300’ up in a race with 12 more miles and 7,500’ more feet of climbing.  Seriously, what are these people thinking?

Pace per mile is meaningless for this race, so I take my Garmin off of auto lap, and manually click the check points based on Matt’scalculated pace chart, which I had clipped to my shorts.  Unfortunately, I managed to hit the Stop button instead of the Lap button at Ruxton.  I lost about 5 minutes on my watch by the time I noticed, which wasn’t a big deal, but just another little thing to throw me off.

I’ve always had to walk with the pack up parts of the W’s, but this year seemed so much worse.  I don’t know if I was further back, or if people just went out faster than in previous years.  Additionally, there were a handful of runners that were just plain jerks.  Like the drivers that make stupid moves to get around you when you’re stuck in a long line of traffic and everyone is going at the same pace anyway, they insisted on repeatedly elbowing their way in front of people.  I honestly felt like pushing a few of these guys (yes, they were all guys) right off the steep edge of the trail.  It was hard to keep my cool, even though I had no doubt I would pass them permanently soon enough.  I had thoughts of waiting for them at the top – “hey dumbass, you were in such a big hurry earlier, what took you so long?”

I tried to be pretty respectful as I passed, when an opportunity arose.  After the W’s, we spread out a bit more, but it wasn’t until close to No Name Creek that things cleared up enough to run my race, at my own pace.  Before that, I had to shuffle behind others, than make quick sprints around when I could – not an ideal start, and based on the split timing at No Name, it’s clear I was even further behind in the pack than I would normally like.

At least after the W’s, no one passed me, all the way to the top.  I picked runners off one by one, especially on the runnable sections.  I even managed to pass Dave, a runner I know from Lakewood, before the 7.5 sign, much earlier than in previous years.  I was hitting all the splits from the top of the W’s through Barr Camp at 5 minutes behind.  A-Frame was 7 minutes back, and then the time just kept piling on.  Even with the time I’ve spent on Mt. Bierstadt and Guanella Pass, I was feeling the altitude above tree line and got pretty light headed at times.

I pushed really hard on the top section and probably had a top 30 time from the A-frame up, but it wasn’t enough.  I stopped looking at my watch after the 1 to go sign.  The 3:00 goal was long gone, but I still thought I could at least beat last year’s time.  Just in case, I didn’t want to depress myself with reality.  I kept passing people, even two guys in the last 100 feet because I was pushing so hard, but when I looked up, the clock read 3:12:06.  Two minutes slower than last year, 12 minutes slower than my goal.  I was pretty bummed.  I hung out at the top for a while before finally boarding the van and then the bus back to Manitou.

I’m still disappointed with the time, but somehow, I managed to place 10 spots higher up than last year (from 83rd to 73rd (out of 1,641)) – bit of a consolation.

As Saturday wore on and I busied myself with eating, hydrating, and household chores, I gradually refocused my attention away from the mediocre Ascent and onto the next day’s Marathon.  I decided that despite my better judgment, I would push hard from the start to be in a better spot for the W’s and see if I could maintain it going up.  The last two years, I’ve been 10 minutes slower on the Marathon ascent, but who knows – maybe I can pull a rabbit out the hat tomorrow.


Sunday morning started better than the previous day.  I got a good parking space and had plenty of time to mill about the start line.  I was even able to pose for a picture with Arlene Piper – the first female EVER to complete a marathon – the 1959 Pikes Peak Marathon.

I placed myself closer to the front than for the Ascent and once the gun went off, I pushed harder than I have on any of the previous PikesPeak races.  It worked!  I didn’t feel too bad by the time we hit the base of the W’s and unlike the previous day, I was able to run with everyone around me at an appropriate pace, with minimal walking.  This kept me going at a good pace all the way, but made it much harder to pass people as they were closer to my own abilities.  Despite the tougher competition, I managed to keep passing runners all the way up.

I brought 5 gels and a bunch of S-caps and did a great job of fueling and hydrating all along.  I augmented the gels with M&M’s, Jelly Belly’s, and craisins at the aid stations.  Using the larger (20 oz) bottle this year also paid off, as I didn’t have to fill it as often.  I really forced myself to drink as I knew the return would be oppressively hot and I didn’t want a stupid mistake like dehydration to ruin the day.

I really pushed hard above A-frame and ran even more than the previous day.  Fortunately, I was also feeling better, with no real altitude symptoms other than shortness of breath.  I passed more people above tree line but as I got closer to the top another runner was slowly gaining on me.  I think he provided some extra motivation because I was going to do anything to not let him pass me.  It worked.  He got to within less than a minute, but never overtook me.

The turn-a-round was great!  I looked up, and unlike the previous day, I was pleasantly surprised to see the clock at 3:07:08.  A full 5 minutes faster than Saturday’s Ascent and a PR by 3 minutes.  On both of the past doubles, I was 10 minutes slower the second day.  Being faster this time gave me a great lift and I was certain I would be able to break the 5 hour mark.

Shortly after I turned around, I was passed by a guy who looked like he was sprinting for the finish.  I don’t like being passed, but there was no way I was going to even stay close to this guy so I pulled over and watched him fly by.

The top half of the descent is by far my favorite part of this race - legs and lungs feel a great sense of relief; you’re finally running again instead of power hiking; all the uphill runners cheer you on as you pass; and you get to bound over the rocks like a mountain goat.  Every single runner yielded and encouraged me along.  I was having a blast!

Now if ever there was a race tailor made for a face plant, the PPM descent would be it – lots of rocks, loose gravel, tired legs, altitude, oncoming traffic, etc.  This being my 3rd descent, I have somehow managed not to hit the dirt a single time, though I’ve certainly taken my share of hits on other races.  Maybe it’s because I’m so incredibly conscious of the danger.  Quite honestly, leading up to the race, I can’t even imagine how I’m going to be able to run back down.  I keep having visions of doing a face plant on a big boulder.

While the first half of the descent is my favorite, the second half is just plain work and perseverance.  By the time you get back to Barr Camp, the scenery is gone, there are no more cheering runners, the temperature rises, and all that boulder bounding has taken a serious toll on the legs.  I kept checking my time as I passed the mile markers – 8, 7, 6, etc.  It was going to be much closer than I was hoping for.  I would have to average 8 minute miles, and that’s exactly what I was doing.  I could make up an extra minute or so once I hit the pavement, but that wasn’t much of a safety cushion.  I just couldn’t push much harder without the fear of blowing up.  You would think that 13 miles with almost 8,000’ of loss would be pretty fast, but as hard as I was pushing, it took 1:49:26 for the descent.  That’s more than 8 minutes/mile – a pretty pedestrian pace on most courses.

Mercifully, clouds moved in during the bottom part of the descent and I even heard some thunder, though I never got to feel any refreshing moisture.  I managed to pass 5 runners on the way down and was feeling pretty good about not being passed since right after the top.  Unfortunately, just after coming out onto the pavement by the Cog, female no. 5 went flying by.  I tried to keep up, but was just too fatigued.  She beat me by 25 seconds, and I didn’t care.  The cheering crowds were awesome along the last ½ mile of the course and I crossed the line in 4:56:34.  I broke my 5 hour goal!

After milling about the finish line, getting my shirt and rehydrating, I slowly made my way back towards Memorial Hall, ready for some food.  On the way, I saw the massage tables set up in front of the library and treated myself to an awesome 30 minutes of pain and pleasure.  Once I finally made it into Memorial Hall, I glanced at the printed results and got a most pleasant shock – in addition to the great 36th place finish (out of 707), they had me listed for a 1st place age group award!  As it turned out, I was actually 8th out of 103 in my age group, but the 7 in front of me got top 10 overall, or top 5 masters, so I rose to the top of the age group awards – sweet.

After eating and more hydrating, I realized it would be another 1 ½ hours till the awards ceremony, so I went home, showered, changed, and hydrated some more before coming back.  Even though it ate up a good part of the afternoon, I’m glad I came back, not only to get my plaque, but to celebrate all of the incredible running achievements of the day.  The winner was from Japan, and I sat next to a gal from New Zealand, who was the 10th overall female.

The improved ascent time from the Marathon also nudged me up in the Triple Crown of Running series – 5th place in the Masters division!

An awesome day, following a somewhat disappointing day made for a great weekend.  I probably won’t be doing either the Ascent or Marathon for quite a while, but I feel like I can now walk away from the Peak with my head held high.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Mount Werner Classic 50K - 2013

What an awesome day on the trails at the Mount Werner Classic!

I couldn't have written a better script.  73 runners toed the line and I placed myself about a third of the way down the field.  Everyone must have been in a pretty big hurry, because within half a mile, I was probably more than 50 runners back from the front.  Not feeling overly energetic, I stuck to my pre-race plan and took it slow and easy on the 3,500' ascent up Mount Werner.

I must have been doing a good job of hydrating, because I had to make 3 pit stops before the top.  I also hit the gels and S-caps earlier than usual as part of my never-ending experimentation.  With two bottles, I was able to skip the first aid station, only 2.2 miles up.  After that, the trail was a bit more rolling than I had anticipated, which was a good break from the climb.  The ascent was a combination of gravel roads and trails which mostly wound their way across the ski slopes.  The terrain wasn’t very exciting, but the wildflowers and views to the valley below were.  At the “top”, and the third aid station, we turned off onto some sweet single track.  I was hoping to make up some more time in this section, but it wasn’t quite as flat and fast as the profile looked.  I guess everyone else was feeling it too, cause I was able to open it up a bit and by the time I hit the turn-a-round at the half way point, I was around 20th.

I drank a giant cup of Coke, grabbed a Honey Stinger waffle, and a couple of slices of turkey, which a dog greedily eyed until they were gone.  I next dug into the waffle, on which I almost choked and ended up coughing violently for over a mile.  Then I cranked it up a little more, despite the increasing heat, and counted down from 20 with every runner I passed.  I had just caught up with the Cassandra Scallon, the no. 1 female, at the top of Mount Werner, and without being at all cocky, I figured I would soon pass her, as I'm a pretty decent downhiller.  Boy was I wrong!  This gal was cooking.  I nearly redlined multiple times over the next 5 miles just to keep her in my sights and we didn’t come up on any additional runners.  Eventually, she toed a rock, didn't fall, but it threw her off enough that she gave up the insane pace and pulled off to the side to let me by.

With my mind on the finish and my legs trying to keep up with Cassandra, I skipped the last two aid stations.  I had plenty of fluids, though both bottles were a bit warm for my taste, and I even managed to squeeze a gel down the gullet.  Based on my splits, I didn’t think I had any chance to make my 5:30 goal, but when I ran through the last aid station with 2.2 miles to go, I realized I might have an outside chance.  At this point, I really hit the gas and threw down 6:45 and 6:15 miles, passed no. 10 with ½ mile to go and crossed the line in 5:28, still feeling good!  9th overall and 2nd in the masters division (old farts - over 40).  Maybe I should just stick to 50K's.  But then again, it was those last three 50 milers that made this seem so short and easy.

The post run food was awesome.  That's a picture of the incredible desert platters.  I stayed around long enough to regain my appetite so that I could enjoy quite a few of them (the picture was taken before I dug in!).

Another great thing about this race is that they check every runner in at each aid station so you get time splits all along.  I liked seeing how I was placing throughout the race from the first aid station to the finish; 41, 36, 27, 19 (turn-a-round), 12, 11, 10, 9 (finish).

Garmin Connect

Grand Mesa Ultra - 2013

What an adventure! Grand Mesa Ultra (my 3rd 50 miler in the past 4 weeks).

Projected time – 9:00
Actual time – 9:40

The whole family went to Grand Mesa (the largest flat topped mountain in the world) and we camped out at Cobbett Lake.

We got there right around 5:00 on Friday and I was able to check in with a few minutes to spare before the pre-race meeting. Weather report – 2 inches of snow the week before, highs in the low 70’s and 60% chance of rain in the afternoon for race day. Wildlife report – over the past few days, 2 black bears and a mountain lion, in addition to the typical herds of cattle. They raffled off a few bottles of wine and bags of coffee. The whole feel was that of a small, cozy, local race, though it was very well managed. There were 31 registered for the 50, and less than 100 total for all 3 distances.

The girls were elated when the talking was over and the dinner began - pasta salad, corn on the cob, very good cookies (of which I had about a dozen (carbo-loading)), and lemonade to wash it down with. After dinner, we made the short drive down to our campsite. I set up the tent while Brenda and the girls went exploring. When I was done, Amy took me out for a walk so Brenda and Kirstyn could prep for my pre-birthday festivities. When we got back, the tent was decorated with store-bought and home-made banners and in the middle was a loaf of pumpkin bread, with a candle. It was awesome!

The forecast called for lows around 50 and it felt pretty chilly. I had to get up 3 times due to my great job of pre-hydrating. Brenda kept piling layers on top of her, and right before I got up, Kirstyn came over and snuggled in with Brenda to warm up.

I woke up before the alarm went off. Getting ready in a tent, trying not to wake the family was a little different. I did all right, except I was a bit lite with the runners lube in some of the private areas (I paid for that mistake after the race). Given all their support and sacrifices, I didn’t want to wake them up at 4:00 AM to drive me, so I walked the 1.25 miles to the start. The moon was out and there was no traffic on the road other than a dozen or so cars that were also headed to the race.

Having a single port-a-potty at the start of a race would normally be a huge problem, but due to the small number of runners, I didn’t even have to wait, and the line never got more than three people. I was going to start out with a long sleeve jersey and gloves, but despite shivering in the tent ½ an hour earlier, at the last minute I decided to ditch them. That turned out to be a good decision as I would have been overheating pretty quickly.

The gun went off, and we started under the stars at 5:00 AM. Within a mile, we had spread out somewhat and I was running with about a half dozen others when we missed a turn. We only went down the wrong trail a couple of hundred yards, ducking under a fallen tree and stopping at another trail intersection before we realized our mistake. We quickly turned around and headed back up the trail but unfortunately, the young gal in front of me forgot to duck when going back under the fallen tree. Whack! Her head hit the tree, her knee popped backwards, her ankle rolled under her, and she was sprawled out on the ground. One guy volunteered to run back to the parking lot we just ran through to get help. I volunteered to stay with the gal and the others continued on with their race.

She didn’t appear to have a concussion and after a few minutes, I helped her up. Despite wincing in pain, she was able to hobble on up to the main trail with my assistance. Once we got there, she was limping reasonable well and insisted I could leave her, so I did, figuring I had gained some good karma by helping. By that time, I was DFL (Dead F’n Last). I slowly wove my way through much of the pack as the sun made its way up over the horizon. Ultra runners, even more so than other runners, are a collegial, gracious bunch. This morning was the first time I had ever run into an ultra jerk. Most runners stepped out of the way and allowed me to pass when they noticed me catch up. With a few, I very politely asked them if I could get by when it was convenient. This one guy, with a wide brimmed hat, responded by pointing down at the tall grass and rocks alongside the narrow trail and grumpily stating “go whenever you want”. I hopped off the trail, around him, and back on, thinking “wow, what an ass”.

We climbed up to the Crag Crest, an incredible (and narrow) volcanic rock ridge that we ran along for a number of miles. Most of the ridge was just“visually” narrow, but there were a few sections where a fall off the trail would have meant a long, vertical fall, to the valley below. The views were spectacular. The Columbine and other wildflowers were amazing. I didn’t care much about the time I had lost earlier and was just enjoying the moment. Between the darkness, the climb, and the rocky trail along the top, this section turned out to be much slower than I had anticipated. Sometimes the topo profile can be very deceiving.

Surprisingly, I made it back to the start/finish only 17 minutes behind my goal time. That gave me a bit of a boost, so I downed a can of Coke and headed on out.

The next 3.5 miles were more difficult than I had anticipated. The course followed a snowmobile trail, which is smooth and gently rolling when there’s 5’ of snow on it. Today, the rocky terrain was covered with tall grasses and shrubbery, yet I kept having to take my eyes off the ground to see where the next marker was. Despite all of this, I made up 5 minutes by the time I got to the Mesa Top aid station, which I would have missed altogether if there wasn’t a teenager standing out there, pointing me in the right direction.

Once out of Mesa Top, I got onto an actual trail. It was awesome. Smooth, soft dirt under the feet, meandering through pine forest and out through giant fields of magnificent wildflowers. If that wasn’t enough, the trail eventually made its way over to the Mesa edge. Wow! It looked like I was on the edge of the earth. This section took about 1:30, and for all but the last 15 minutes, I was absolutely alone. I kept waiting to run upon a bear or moose and was coming up with colorful stories I could recount, assuming I survived the encounter.

I made it through the Flowing Park aid station after guzzling down a can of Coke, filling the bottles, and taking two cookies for the road. This was an even longer section of solitude through more incredible fields, aspens, and Mesa edge views. The Flowing Park loop was awesome, except that the pink ribbon course markers were gone for about 8 miles and the limited aid station was WAY further out than the course write-up had noted. I knew I was on the right trail for most of the way, but after a while, I started to have some doubts, especially as my bottles were running low. Luckily there were 3 mountain bikers out there, rolling along at a slow enough pace that I was able to catch up to them. This is where that good karma I had banked in the morning came in handy. They filled up one of my bottles with water, gave me a gel, and pointed me in the right direction at a trail intersection that would have taken me some time to figure out due to the lack of course markings.

After paring ways at the trail junction, I soon caught up to another runner. I started out with “how’d you like the lack of course markings” question, but unfortunately, the only word the guy could utter was “France”. Apparently, he didn’t speak a single word of English.

Pretty soon, we came across the limited aid station that I was expecting miles back. The two gals apologized but they were limited to where they had trees to shade their horses, as everything was packed in. I filled the bottles, and quickly moved on as I was feeling much better now that I knew where I was. I passed a couple of more runners before getting back to the Flowing Park aid station. As there were still runners heading into the loop, I stopped a few times to warn them to fill up on fluids and expect a lack of course markings.

The aid station had ice! I got a cup full and proceeded to down a full can of Coke in addition to a club soda. Boy did that feel good after the long stretch in the hot sun. I felt great as I headed out and was told I was in 5th or 6th place. However, the sun and miles at 10,000’+ had taken their toll and I slowed down considerably before reaching the last aid station at Mesa Top. I did a good bit of walking on even the most minor inclines. I was pretty worn by the time I stumbled into the last aid station. I was enjoying some very refreshing club soda on ice when the volunteers informed me that I was actually in 3rd place! What a great surprise. But the elation I felt quickly melted away as I looked back and saw number 4 come out of the woods and towards the aid station. I quickly downed the rest of the drink, poured the remaining ice down the front of my shorts and shot out of there like a bat out of hell (assuming a bat out of hell stumbles along at a wimpy 4 mph).

Over those last 3.5 miles, the adrenaline rush kept me going, as I picked my way through grass, rocks and shrubs, constantly looking up for the next marker, and occasionally looking back over my shoulder, certain that I would be overtaken at any moment.

Number 4 never caught up. After what seemed like an eternity, I came upon the finish line and best of all, Brenda and the girls were a hundred feet ahead of the line, so I got to cross with both girls running alongside of me. 3rdplace on my birthday! It doesn’t get much better than that. My first ever podium finish. I felt a little cheated in that they didn’t have an actual podium for me to stand on, but then again, after 50 miles, it would have had to have been an ADA accessible podium for me to get up.

The Grand Mesa Ultra is by far the most spectacular race course I’ve run yet. I would definitely do it again, especially as a last hard training race, 3 weeks before Leadville. Having done the course once (I hope they don’t change it next year) would really help. It’s quite different than the Silver Rush, where there were 20 times more finishers and I was never alone for more than a few minutes. Normally, I wouldn’t like that much solitude, but the course was so beautiful and downright interesting that it was worth it.

Garmin Connect (partial course)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Silver Rush 2013

This was somewhat of a last minute decision this year.  I had already signed up for the North Fork 50 miler 2 weeks before this, and 2 weeks after, I was registered for the Gran Mesa Ultra 50 miler.  Three 50 milers, each two weeks apart was going to be a stretch for my running abilities.  Additionally, it was going to be a stretch for the family.  So much of the summer was already revolving around my races.

As luck would have it, my wife got offered a house just a few miles outside of Leadville.  I noted that this was a good “free” weekend for us to get a way and casually mentioned that I could slip off for “a few hours” to do a little race.  Then everything fell into place.  The mom of one of Brenda’s previous students was apparently also doing the race, so her and her husband could just share the house with us.  Then, a couple of Brenda’s former student’s decided that they and their mom would come stay with us also and they would do a triathlon and decathlon that day.  It worked out perfectly.  We wound up with 12 people in this house, two running the Silver Rush, and three doing the triathlon/decathlon, and Brenda and the girls would have lots of company so I didn’t feel like I was deserting them.

Susan was going to run the Silver Rush, her first 50 miler, because she was turning 50 and she had not pre-conceived goals, other than to finish.  I was coming back after having had an awesome race as part of the Silver King double, the previous year.  Though I was doing much more running this year and had a bit more ultra experience under my belt, I was very skeptical as to whether I could do any better.

The start was absolutely beautiful!  The national anthem was sung as gorgeous clouds over the collegiate peaks to the west were illuminated by the rising sun.  Wait a second!  Clouds? At sunrise? In Colorado?  Though beautiful, that was not a good sign.  The forecast called for 60% chance of thunderstorms that afternoon.  The hourly forecast (if it held true) should allow me to get back over the high, exposed passes in time.

Susan’s husband, Steve, was extremely helpful driving and taking our extra stuff before the start.  Knowing the course definitely helps.  I started out at a nice moderate pace.  I overheard a gal talking near me, saying that she had finished in 8:55 the previous year.  “Hey, wait.  Don’t I know you?”  Turns out it was Katarin, whom I had run with for the last 13 miles last year and just edged her out at the end.  This year, we wound up running almost the whole race together until the last 7 miles.  Every time I would pass her, she would catch me while I was guzzling down a can of Coke at an aid station.

There were quite a number of other runners that I knew or that recognized me.  Mitch Dulleck, a fellow Colfax ambassador was going for his first 50 miller, but apparently didn’t finish.  Parks Williams, from Colorado Springs, came in first in his age group, 70+!!  It took me well into my second year of racing to be able to beat this guy and he’s in his 70’s!  It was great seeing familiar faces and chatting with various runners along the course.  Ultra runners are the nicest, most welcoming athletes you will ever encounter.

On the slight downhill out of Printer Boy, I was so engrossed in talking with a fellow runner that I managed to trip.  I took a pretty nice roll, but didn’t complete it, ending up flat on my back.  I jumped back up and continued talking with barely a pause, but I ended up with some minor scrapes on my knee, elbow, and back.

I was feeling pretty good and stayed pretty much on or close to schedule most of the way.  Going over the last high pass before dropping down into the Stumptown aid/turn-a-round, there were the most incredible fields of Columbine I have ever seen.  Thousands of flowers carpeted the mountainside.  I wish I had a camera and the time to really appreciate them.

The drop down to Stumptown seems to take forever.  It’s not completely downhill, and it winds around so much.  Every time you think your close, you turn away and wind your way back around.  This is where I had my best aid station experience ever.  All race volunteers are awesome for just being out there, but the folks at Leadville really have their act together.  As I pulled into the station, a teenager was standing there holding my drop bag.  I munched on a wrap and guzzled a Coke while he pulled everything out that I requested – S-Caps, gels, etc.  He filled my bottles and even sprayed me down with sunscreen while I kept on eating and drinking.  Personal concierge service!  Who would have thought?

I headed out of Stumptown only a few minutes behind schedule, up the hill, and into the heat of a summer sun in Colorado.  I was able to enjoy the Columbine fields more on the way up as I was going much slower.  At the top, it was clear that I would make it safely over the high passes without getting struck by lightning, but the view of the stormy clouds on the surrounding mountains was awesome and scary.  I felt bad for the slower runners who might get hit with some pretty rough weather.

Coming down off of the high passes, I took a scary misstep, stumbling for about 15 feet with my face uncomfortably close to the trail.  Luckily, I managed to move my feet fast enough to keep from eating dirt, but that definitely woke me up!  I was getting a bit tired and slowing on the uphill after the Printer Boy aid station.  I got a brief relief from the heat when a storm cell moved through.  The hail and rain felt so good on my skin.  I kept on going, reveling in the coolness as other runners stopped to don rain jackets.

The last 10 miles is almost all downhill.  I was feeling better and passed a number of runners.  Unfortunately, by this time, my Garmin died and I was estimating mileage by my other watch and memory of the terrain.  I figured I had 2 miles to go and it was going to be tough as the course was gently rolling at this point and the long miles and hot sun had taken their toll.  My 8:30 goal was gone, but I was sure I could at least beat last year’s time.  That was until I ran into a guy walking his dog.  He informed me that I actually had 3 ¼ miles to go.  Hearing that extra mile and a quarter just crushed me.  It was a combination of slow running, jogging and some walking, from here on out.  I managed to pass two more runners, which gave me a brief lift, but not enough.  I crossed the line in 8:57, 2 minutes slower than the previous year when I had done the bike race too.  That was a bit deflating, but under 9 hours for this race is still a pretty good time.

The best part was that my wife, girls, and a few of our friends were at the finish line.  I was actually able to run across the finish with the girls!  That was great.

I wound up sticking around the finish because I wanted to be there for our friend Susan.  After frying in the hot sun in nothing but my running shorts, the clouds finally moved in.  By the time Susan crossed the line, I was wearing a fleece top and shivering uncontrollably under an umbrella.  The finish area had turned into a swamp from the heavy, steady rain.  Susan ran the last few miles through the rain.  Unlike the typical Colorado thunderstorms, that evening, it poured for 4 hours straight!  I can’t imagine what some of those late finishers had to endure.  I also realized what a gamble I had been taking running so light (hand held bottles, no shirt or jacket), and how fortunate I was.  The brief hail and rain I got was pleasant and refreshing.  The 4 hours of steady downpour would have resulted in my hypothermic body laying by the side of the trail.

Garmin Connect (partial)