Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Black Canyon Trail 100K

Ready for the inaugural Black Canyon Trail 100K, I pulled into the parking lot at 5 minutes to 5:00 and it was desolate.  The shuttle was supposed to start loading in 5 minutes and there was not a car in sight.  What the...

Finally, I saw another car driving around and we pulled up next to each other. The runner in the other car nicely reminded me that the shuttle was to start loading at 5:30, not 5:00. I pulled out my phone, checked the email, and sure enough, he was right. I could have gotten an extra half hour of sleep!  Oh well, better to be a half hour early, rather than a half hour late.

As I sat in the car, watching other runners arrive, my pre-race breakfast consisted of a piece of cake, 3 chocolate silks, a can of club soda and a whole bunch of honey wheat pretzels.  No Wheaties – maybe that’s why I’m not a champion.  Finally, the shuttle bus showed up and we all piled in.  Katrin and Rachael and I said a quick hello as they boarded the bus and soon we were off towards the starting line.  I had met Katrin while running both Silver Rush’s and we wound up finishing within minutes of each other both times.  She introduced me to Rachael, as the three of us were going to car pool together before they announced the shuttle option.

It was a bit disconcerting that the bus driver asked one of the runners to look up directions on their phone. Additionally, she drove in the right lane on I-17, staying behind all the trucks, slowly grinding up the hills.  The important part was that we got there safely.  But by the time we pulled into the high school parking lot, we only had 15 minutes before the start; a bit tight to pick up bibs, drop bags, and do a final potty stop.  Due to the long lines, the grass beneath the bleachers got some extra "irrigation". 

And then we were off!

Once around the track, out through the parking lot, and on down the side streets towards the trail. An 8:37 mile!  If we kept this up, we'd finish in 8 hours!  Yeah, right, even the winner wouldn’t be able to keep up that kind of a pace.  It was so nice and cool.  Though shivering before the start, I wished the temperature would remain that low.

Katrin, Rachael, and I ran side by side for the first few miles, chatting about races, past and future.  Rachael eventually dropped back, but I was too stupid to do so, even though I had promised myself that I would take this one nice and easy, ensuring that I would finish, as opposed to suffering through another DNF.  Leading up to the race, I had told myself clearly "do not try to keep up with Katrin!" My wife is right; I'm a lousy listener, even when it comes to listening to my own advice.

Running with someone and making small talk just makes the miles zip by. Before I knew it, I looked down at my watch announced to Katrin "hey, we've only got two marathons to go!" We laughed about how crazy that would sound to others, including most runners. I wound up staying on her heels for about the first 20 miles, before the little voice inside my head finally screamed loudly enough "slow down!"

The course was lovely; desert valleys with a variety of cacti vividly lit by the rising sun.  As noted in the pre-race emails, it was pretty clear that there would be no shade. The course wound its way generally southwards, but with lots of twists and turns, following all the drainages that fed the main canyon.  My favorite parts of the trail were the crossings of the Black Canyon Creek.  The water was a welcome relief, as was the visual break from the desert terrain above.

So what about the tendinitis that had me limping in pain after a 2 1/2 mile run the previous week? Well, after taking 9 days off of running, visits to the physical therapist, shaving my legs, and getting Kinesio taped up, this was going to be the test, and a pretty big one at that - 62 miles!

I was pleasantly surprised that I could feel no discomfort at all, at least not for the first 6 miles. Then I started feeling just the slightest twinge. It built up slowly, but never became outright painful.  I took a couple of Aleeve's, just in case, but they didn't seem to make a difference. By the time the mileage got up in to the 20's, I had to stop a couple of times to stretch the calf and the shin. At one point, I was laying on a rock by the side of the trail, with my leg bent completely under me. Two runners came up the trail with shocked looks on their faces, thinking that I must have fallen as I was crumpled up into a pretzel.

Upon explaining my situation, I got up and continued running, with no real improvement in the tendon.  Fears of another DNF started to cloud my mind.  I could power through pain (which I wasn't quite feeling yet), but I didn't want to cause serious damage to the tendon, requiring a lengthy recovery.  By the time I hit the marathon mark, the shin actually started to loosen up, or was it just my imagination? Nope, it was genuinely feeling better!  Within the next few miles, it got considerably better - not quite 100%, but maybe 90%. I could definitely deal with that.  A few more miles and the left shin felt just as good as the right one! I found a new cure for tendinitis - just power through beyond a marathon, and the body either heals itself, or at least gives up on the complaining.

From miles 20 through 30, I ran a bit with a guy named Dave, a teacher from Phoenix. But I ran most of it on my own, as the morning was wearing on and the temperature rising.  The forecast was for a high in the upper 80's – a full 10 degrees hotter than when I fell apart at the Coldwater Rumble just 3 weeks earlier.  Unlike the tendinitis issue, I had some control over the effects of the heat, so I couldn’t afford to let that be an excuse again.  I tried my best to keep hydrated and not push the pace too much; there were no visions of a podium finish this time.  I also tried a different approach.  For the past couple of years, I’ve been racing shirtless.  Not to show off my non-existent upper body.  Just because it’s light and free, and I don’t have to worry about nipple rub.  This day, I experimented with wearing a loose-fitting, long-sleeved hiking shirt and a safari hat.  I hoped these would keep the sun off and provide an opportunity to cool off by wetting them down periodically.  I think the experiment worked, but early on I was reminded of one of the reasons to go shirtless - my nipples were rubbed raw. Band-Aids wouldn’t stick at that point due to the sweat, so I relied on big glops of Vaseline, reapplying generously at every aid station.  The shirt pockets were also super handy for carrying a map (which I never had to use) and extra snacks.

At about mile 30, just 10 miles since she had disappeared into the distance, I saw Katrin up ahead. Was I running too fast? Was she slowing down?

I finally caught up to her within the next mile.  We were at the half-way point! She was looking strong as ever, but was offering assistance and water to an older runner who looked like a zombie. There was another guy with him, guiding him on a slow death march down the trail. I offered to help, but my bottles were full of Shaklee, so I couldn't pour them on him to cool him off. Luckily, we were less than a mile from the next aid station.

After being assured that we could do nothing more, Katrin and I ran on, reflecting on how scary the guy had looked; pale, with a blank, dazed look in his eyes. I’ve been bad, but not quite that bad. At least I didn't think I had ever looked quite that bad. As we approached the aid station, two volunteers were already heading in to help the suffering runner. I hope he made it out safely. There but for the grace of dog…

While I enjoy the solitude and self-reflection of running alone, running with Katrin made the miles roll by so much faster. We slowly reeled in one runner after another and as we headed towards the out-and-back aid station #7, we passed another female runner.  Soon we came upon a gal with a forest service patch who took a picture of Katrin then put the camera down as I came by. "Am I not worthy of a picture" I joked. "Maybe, but she's the first place woman" was the reply. Wow, I was now running with the number one female!  How stupid was that?  What happened to taking it easy, not fighting the heat, and ensuring a finish?  It was now the hottest part of the day and we were just about to head into the longest climb, with the farthest distance between aid stations and I was chasing the first place woman!

At the aid station, I drank lots of ginger ale on ice to replenish the fluids. Then I dumped the remaining cup of ice down my shorts - cooled me off, but for the first few hundred yards, I was waddling like a toddler with a full diaper. Katrin had taken off quicker, so it was about a mile before I caught site of her again, and another to catch up.

I wound up eating much less than I anticipated on this day.  I left behind a number of gels and peanut butter packs at aid station drop bags, as I had my pockets already full.  I used some of the Hammer Perpertuem tablets for the first time during a race and they seemed to work fine.  Ultimately, hydration was so much more important than fueling; I just concentrated on getting the fluids in.  I also found that in the latter part of the race, I tend to switch to plain, cold water from the Shaklee Performance.  Thank goodness they had lots of ice at all of the aid stations!  Had they not, adequate hydration would have been nearly impossible.  During the longest, hottest stretch, I took a 16 ounce bottle of water with me, in addition to my two 20 ounce hand-helds.  While this was definitely a smart thing to do, the extra water bottle had been sitting in my drop bag, out in the sun.  It was too hot to be drinkable, but was usable for pouring on my head, down my back, and just rinsing my mouth out.

I had some minor stomach issues at times, but the effect was mainly a reduction in food intake.  That, and a bit of turbo propulsion; luckily, there were no other runners behind me.  I also hit the S-caps from early on and used about 20 of them throughout the day.  My body was definitely craving salt.  I enjoyed lots of pretzels at the aid stations, and even a chicken salad sandwich (which the volunteers wisely kept in a cooler).  The best treats, however, were the chunks of baked potatoes that I would dip into a bowl of salt – yum!  Ultra runners have the opposite issue of most Americans – we can’t get enough salt in our diets.

After catching Katrin yet again, we stayed together till the end.  She had some stomach issues for a while too, and thought she might hurl, but luckily recovered towards the end.  We knew she was the first place woman since aid station #7, but never knew by how much.  She was constantly looking behind her, expecting to be passed, especially during the stomach issues, but it never happened.  She wound up finishing a full 45 minutes ahead of the next female.

I can’t thank Katrin enough for all her support this day.  I would have been at least a half hour slower had I not stayed on her heels and in the end, since she knew she had the first place female position in hand, she graciously hung back to allow me to finish ahead of her.  Now that’s a true champion!  And luckily I’m comfortable enough in my manliness (or lack thereof) to allow a woman to allow me to finish ahead of her.  Had it come down to an actual sprint between the two of us, I would have easily been on the losing end.  It was pretty cool to see her cross the finish line in first and be interviewed afterwards, not that I had any part in her success, but just being along for the ride was nice.  I’m looking forward to some upcoming races, though I’m not sure I can keep staying on her heels, especially on the 100 milers. 

UltraSignup had 76 runners registered, with Katrin ranked 11th, me 31st, and Rachael 40th.  We all exceeded those expectations and Rachael did it despite running an extra few miles!  In the end, only 42 runners crossed the finish line, out of the 65 that started.  Rachael just made the cut-off by minutes.  Apparently she got lost and tacked on some unexpected miles after the second to last aid station.  Now that’s determination!  If I had gotten that lost, that late in the race, in the dark, I would have just laid down and quit.  She’s a real trooper.  I look forward to running with her at more races, especially Bryce.

I can’t say enough good things about Aravaipa.  They managed to put on another incredible race.  The course was well marked, though not quite as thoroughly as the McDowell and Coldwater courses; this might have helped those who got lost after dark.  The volunteers were amazing.  At every aid station, there was someone waiting to take my bottles, fill them with ice and water, get my drop bag, pour me many cups of ginger ale, etc.  I didn’t eat too much of the aid station food, but the choices seem to be pretty consistent across their races.  The ice was a huge lifesaver and they also had indispensable items like duct tape, sun screen, and large tubs of Vaseline.

All of Aravaipa’s races are reasonably priced and for those who would like to save even more money and already have closets full of shirts, they offer a $10-no-shirt discount.  Plus, you get great quality, downloadable pictures for free!  How awesome is that?

Having a drop bag at every other aid station was perfect. I was able to have a few needed supplies, including a headlamp, waiting for me, instead of having to carry these things the whole way.  I also appreciated that they set up a shuttle to the start.  While Katrin, Rachael, and I were making plans to carpool, hopping on a shuttle bus and not worrying about when your carpool driver is going to cross the finish line reduces the unnecessary stress.

I would easily recommend this race to anyone.  There’s something nice about a point-to-point course, though it was not at all easy.  A net elevation loss of almost 2,500 feet sounds good, but my Garmin showed over 4,600 feet of gain in between.  My mileage was 62.3, which is not far off of what was expected, though at aid station # 8, the remaining distances that we were given added up to 64.  That was not very good news, and thankfully, it was inaccurate.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Coldwater Rumble 2014

2013 was my best running year yet; most overall miles (2,100), marathon PR (3:00:06), 50K PR (4:33), longest run (66 miles), 2-3rd place finishes, etc.

The plan was to start 2014 by building on those successes.

Since the 50 mile McDowell Mountain Frenzy in the beginning of December, I hadn't run more than 7 miles at a time, averaging only 20 to 30 miles per week, but I did have some great training runs; broke the 7:00/mile pace for my lunch time run, ran a 6:44/mile pace for the 7 mile Belmar Club training run, and broke the 6:00 mile barrier on my sprint intervals.  Despite the extra pounds I put on over the holidays, I was running faster than ever and was hoping these successes would make up for the lack of mileage.

The first race for 2014 was to be the Coldwater Rumble 52 miler in Phoenix. I had actually contemplated doing the 100 miler, simply drawn by the lure of another belt buckle, but "settled" for the double marathon. My friend Rick Valentine was smart enough to drop down to the 50K, but I wanted to start the year off big.  I did - BIG Mistake!

I made a trip out of it, taking my youngest daughter, Amy, and visited my parents and sister.  The night before the race, we went out to the New York Pizza Department and I had the ideal runner's pre-race dinner - pizza, gooey cookies, and lots of ice cream.  I'm sure this had nothing to do with the following day's disaster.

The 100 milers started out as I was still getting my stuff together. Every time I watch longer distance runners start before me, I feel like a wimp, opting for a shorter distance. I really wanted to head out with them.  Only 48 miles more, and I could get a nifty belt buckle to double my collection. It was so tempting, but even I'm not stupid enough (barely) to jump into a 100 miler at the last minute.

Milling around before the start, this guy came up to me and asked "hey, are you Adrian?" Apparently he had seen my name, picture and results online - not sure why I would have stood out.  After a few brief pleasantries, Dan stated "you have a shot at winning this, don't you?" It turned out to be just the jinx I didn't need, but at the time, it planted an intriguing, yet dangerously unrealistic seed in my mind.  Maybe, if I had a super day (like the successes of my short training runs) and everyone had a mediocre day... just maybe, it might be possible. After all, the really good runners were tackling the 100.  Maybe…

7:30 came, and we were off - about 40 or 50 of us for the 52 miler.  It was quite nice for a while.  The temp was only around 60 and there was a thin layer of clouds blocking the sun.  The climbs weren't as bad as I had anticipated, requiring very little walking.  My goal was 8:30, which translated to a 9:42/mile pace.  As I approached the second aid station, at the far end of the main loop, and near the high point of the course, I was feeling great; effortless 9:35 pace and easy terrain, other than some loose sandy areas. Of course, I was only 11 miles into a 52 mile race, the sun was now out, and the temperature was rising, but that dream of victory was still peaking its way out from the back of my mind.

The return part of the loop was even better and slightly downhill. Part way back, I heard a "hey, Adrian" from behind.  It was Rick Valentine (who I had met on the URoC Vail race). He was running the 50K and was cooking! Though he started 30 minutes later, he caught me by mile 16 - that would equate to an almost 7:30 pace and he was in 1st place! I ran with him for a 1/4 mile or so, as we chatted about upcoming races and the stupidity of my 7 mile training plan for a 52 miler.  I soon let him go and settled back into my comfortable pace. When I caught a glimpse of him later, coming back from the start/finish, he wasn't looking quite as peppy.  Turns out, he dropped out around mile 22. I guess that 7:30/mile pace just wasn't sustainable.

By the time I went through the Start/Finish myself, I had dropped my pace to 9:29 and was still feeling great.  Maybe Dan was right. Maybe I did have a chance at winning. Maybe I could pick up the pace a little and finish closer to 8 hours.  That would ensure me a spot on the podium, maybe even the top spot. It all seemed so reasonable and achievable at the time, much like the proverbial mirage in the desert.

The first half of the second loop was only slightly slower than the first, but it took more effort than I realized. The sun was beating down and the temperature climbed to 80. I was trying my best to hydrate and was now hitting the S-caps to maintain the electrolyte levels.  Looking back, I should have been more pro-active with the hydration earlier on – lesson learned (hopefully).

Back at the far aid station (mile 31), they told me I was in 5th place.  That was awesome, but my pace had slowed to 9:40, and I was noticeably walking more of the uphills than I had on the first loop.  I kept moving though and passed a couple more 52 milers, bringing myself up to 3rd place by mile 35! Victory was within my grasp, with only 17 miles to go.  Unfortunately, my pace was continuously slowing. By mile 37, I was mostly walking, and by mile 39 I was walking slowly. By the time I stumbled across the Start/Finish line at mile 40.5, I had been re-passed by a couple of runners and dropped back down to 5th place. Normally, 5th place with 12 miles to go would be a great position for me, but I was suffering and knew that it would take me at least 3 hours to complete the race, rather than 2 under normal conditions.  I was also torn by the knowledge that I was missing out on time with my daughter and my parents.

The only other time that I had considered dropping out of a race was at the NorthFork 50 miler last summer, but the only way out was to continue on the course, so I did, and eventually recovered reasonably well. One of the great things about a race course with multiple loops is the energy you get from the cheering crowds as you pass through the start/finish.  The downside is that it gives you an easy option of bailing out, which is exactly what I did.

Reluctantly, I decided to throw in the towel and take my first DNF after 160 races.

I was pretty dehydrated by the end. The salt was caked on so thick, you could have drunk a margarita out of my belly button (if you didn't mind the occasional hair). The race officials and volunteers tried to motivate me to continue, given that I was still in the top 5 and had plenty of time to finish, but once I had made up my mind, there was no starting up again. In the infamous words of Kenny Rogers – “you got to know when to fold 'em”.

As I sat by the start/finish aid, gulping down cups of iced Ginger Ale before I could stomach some snacks, I watched other runners come through.  Some were finishing the shorter distances.  Others were 40 miles into the hundred. I felt like a bit of a loser wussing out so easily, but as I sat up from the bench and nearly fell over from light-headedness, dropping out didn't seem like such a bad decision.

When I started running, I kept all the medals and race bibs, but after a while I stopped, as I didn't have enough wall space.  This is the first race that I've kept the bib from in years.  I even pinned it up in my office so Every time I look up, I'll be reminded of this day. Some say success breeds success.  I say that a colossal failure can bread success (hopefully). This DNF is going to push me to train harder and longer, and take future races that much more seriously. I will not DNF again! (at least not for quite a while). I will be back in Arizona in only 3 weeks for a 100K - that ought to be a good test. Let’s hope an arctic front moves through that weekend, so I don’t have to suffer again.