Friday, May 30, 2014

Jemez Mountain Trail Run

The whole family went along for the Jemez Mountain Trail Run, making a long Memorial Day trip out of it to Los Alamos and Santa Fe.  We arrived at packet pick-up/dinner just as the second race briefing was getting started, and it appeared that the information was the same as on the website.  There weren’t too many runners about and I didn’t see a single familiar face.

I kept checking the weather up until late Friday night and it seemed pretty certain that we’d be getting wet at some point.  The forecast was for mid to upper 50’s and a 30-50% chance of precipitation during the entire day – seemed like pretty typical spring/summer weather in the mountains, except that the chance of precipitation ran all through the night and morning.  With that in mind, I threw my $0.99 poncho into the rear pocket of my shorts and also decided to throw a long-sleeve shirt into my main drop bag.

photo by David Silva

I didn’t want to wake the whole family for the 5:00 AM start, so I hitched a ride with Rachel StClaire and Katrin and David Silva.  We got there in plenty of time and hung around for a while, waiting for the start.  The temperature was in the low 50’s as the cloud cover had kept things moderate and I could feel the high humidity, but no precipitation.  I looked around for Anton Krupicka at the start, but never caught a glimpse.  I knew I would have no chance to see him after we started.  I can’t even sprint as fast as this guy runs ultras.

photo by David Silva

For some reason, I decided to keep my long-sleeve shirt on at the start, which turned out to be a bit of an annoyance as I quickly began to sweat, even at a moderate pace.  I stayed with Katrin for the first couple of miles, but then dropped back as I wanted to save myself for the big climbs.  There were lots of other runners around at this point, though everyone seemed more serious and quiet than at most other races.  Then, a few of miles in, I developed a nose bleed.  I wasn’t too worried about it, but the blood certainly stood out on my white gloves.  I just hoped it wasn’t smeared all over my face.  It was too early for any unearned pity.

With the 5:00 AM start, we all used headlamps in the darkness.  At the first aid station, I tossed mine off, along with my shirt.  It was mild enough that I wasn’t worried about the potential rain.  I then settled into a good, comfortable pace, as runners around me traded positions back and forth.  By mile 7 I started to slowly, yet consistently pass other runners.  It was a bit early into a 50 miler, but I wasn’t chasing anyone down, they were just starting to pay the price for opening out too fast.  As we kept steadily climbing, the runners got more and more stretched out.  Nearing the base of Pajarito, no one else was in sight, but as the climb started, I could see other runners off in the distance.  Feeling good, I continued to slowly reel them in and no one was passing me!  That is, until just after 3 hours in, I heard some heavy breathing closing in behind me.  How could this be?  As he flew by, I realized that this was a 50K runner, and a fast one at that, since he had started 1 hour later.  Further up the climb, one more 50Ker zipped by.

The climb consisted of a nice single-track trail with a number of switch-backs to ease the grade.  I consciously tried to stay on my own pace, yet was able to run quite a bit.  The sun burned off the last of the morning clouds and the moisture off the surrounding lush vegetation, making the air downright humid.  Nearing the top, I saw Katrin up ahead.  This was even better motivation than all the other runners I had passed.  I stayed on pace, and finally caught up to her right before the summit.  She quickly deflated my ego as she informed me that she was having some issues with her quad.  And here I thought that maybe I was finally becoming a faster runner than her.

A few of us were running together now as we headed down the steep ski slopes, while trying not to completely trash our quads so early in the race.  We eventually turned off into the woods along the slopes and onto some nice single-track.  These trails are be used by mountain bikers, and at one point, we came upon a wooden ramp going up and over a downed tree.  The runner in front went up the ramp, took one step on the down ramp and instantly landed on his side.  Katrin and I were smart enough to avoid the ramp and stopped to check on the fallen runner.  I thought he had dislocated his shoulder but he quickly got up, was able to move it freely, and was running again within a couple of seconds.

We made our way down to the Ski Lodge AS where our numbers were yelled ahead by spotters so that other helpful volunteers could pull our drop bags for us.  Awesome service!  I downed a can of cola and refilled my bottles as my volunteer valet sprayed me down with sunscreen.  I felt like I got out of there pretty fast, but Katrin is always quicker through the stations and I lost her again.

From Ski Lodge, we ran down a bit on service roads and then started climbing again.  Once we got back onto single track and an open field, I could see Katrin up ahead with a few minutes lead.  I ran right past the Pipeline AS, as it was so close to Ski Lodge and made the left turn towards the caldera.  The first few hundred feet were extremely steep and loose.  I was basically doing kick-turns, skiing down, more than running.  One gal had stopped completely and was watching a couple of us maneuvering down, trying to figure out the safest route.  There was none.  I was probably one of the lucky few who didn’t end up on my butt.

Once down this section, I finally caught back up to Katrin and we ran together for a while along the gravel road through the caldera.  At 9 min/mile, it felt like she was pushing the pace, and almost dropped me.  I actually made it through the AS faster than Katrin for once and had the luxury of cruising for a few hundred yards to let her catch up.

Enjoying the panoramic views (much like the poster we got with our packets), we almost missed the left turn off the road and onto a narrow trail through the grasses.  The trail soon petered out as we started ascending up towards the saddle and the second big climb of the day.  The climb was straight up the slope, off trail, but well flagged.  Walking was a welcomed relief after Katrin’s “sprint” across the caldera.  I was feeling strong, passed a couple of runners and even started to pull away from Katrin, whose quad was giving her issues on the climbs.

As I crested the top of the saddle, I closed in on another runner, Erin Phelps.  Since I was making ground on her climbing, and consider myself a good downhiller, I figured it wouldn’t take long for me to pass her by.  Boy was I wrong.  She was flying on the downhill at a sub 9 min pace (that’s pretty fast after having just run a marathon with two major climbs).  As the single-track trail wound its way down through valley, the cool shade of the trees opened up to hot sun.  Fatigue, heat, and a cautious effort slowed me down a bit on the small climbs and I lost sight of Erin for a while.  I caught her at the Pajarito AS and after a quick re-supply, we took off together.  I stayed within sight of her for a couple of miles as we climbed another valley, above a small, flowing brook.  There were a couple of rock climbers playing on some large boulders down below, and they gazed up at us passing runners with a look of combined disbelief and pity.

I just couldn’t match Erin’s pace on this climb and soon she disappeared in the distance.  As I hit the trail junction and started the climb up Pajarito for the second time, the skies clouded over.  What a welcomed relief.  Even with the relatively cool temperatures, the sun made it feel way too warm for my liking.  I was looking forward to the invigorating coolness, but soon enough, I could hear rumbling in the distance.  As I climbed out of the valley and into the burn zone, the views opened up and I could see that the darkest clouds were down to the south, but having spent enough time in the mountains, I was well aware that I couldn’t see past the ridgeline to the north.  I wasn’t at all concerned.  This was pretty much right on the money with the forecast.  I figured that even if a storm cell came over me, there were enough standing dead trees not to worry too much about getting struck by lightning, and once I hit the top, I would be speeding my way down to the finish.

It was a somewhat lonely climb up Pajarito this time, as Erin had long dropped me and there were no other runners around.  I was moving a bit slower than the first time up, but still not too bad.  I could feel intermittent drops of rain and within about a mile of the top, they started coming down consistently.  At this time, I also passed my first 50K runner, giving me a bit of a boost, both from passing and from seeing another person.  At half mile from the top, I hooked up with another 50 mile runner, right as the precipitation turned briefly to hail, and then to snow.  I kept debating on whether I should pull out the emergency $0.99 poncho, or just man up and push through.  Once over the top, it would be an easy 15 mile sprint to the finish.  But I also knew that if I got too cold and wet, it would be very difficult to reverse.  When we got up to the first part of the ski area, I finally gave in and tore out the poncho.  With only a mild wind at this time, I quickly realized that you get what you pay for.  Even once I was able to peel it apart and find the openings, my cheap poncho was difficult to manage.  As with all ponchos, the body was way too big, flopping and blowing around quite a bit, and the hood was not exactly a tailored fit either.  It would either slip down over my face so that I couldn’t see beyond my own feet, or blow back to where my head was exposed.  The wet snow falling on my head was refreshing, until it dissolved all the accumulated salt and started dripping into my eyes – ouch!  Every couple of minutes, I had to stop and wipe my stinging eyes.

The flakes were getting bigger and more consistent as we made it past the bench at the top.  We were over the top!  I was ready for some speed now.  But, as usual, I got a harsh reality check.  I passed a couple of more 50Kers on the short service-road section down before we got onto the double black diamond slopes.  Guess what happens when a steep, grass covered ski slope gets a dusting of wet snow on it.  It’s a miracle that I stayed upright.  I could see runners below me, gingerly taking one small step at a time.  I was doing a combination of skiing and running with micro-steps, though at a much slower pace than the first descent.  And once I got into the trees, there were slick tree roots to watch for, all while trying to manage my stupid poncho.

I finally made it down to the Ski Lodge AS.  I threw back my hood and reveled in the cheers from the volunteers.  I think most were surprised to see a shirtless runner under a clear poncho having such a good time in the muck.  As I got on the deck and asked for my drop bag, Brenda and the girls appeared out of the lodge.  What an awesome surprise!  I hadn’t expected them to meet me anywhere on the course, but I had left my marked-up map in the hotel room, with my estimated times on it and she took matters into her own hands and came up.  It was a huge motivational lift, though I couldn’t spend much time with them.  I was still in race mode, and I also knew that every second of not running was dropping my body temperature.

Brenda helped get stuff out of my drop bag, filled my bottle, and even offered me the clothes and hat that she was wearing, but I declined.  I did, after some quick deliberation, decide to throw on a long sleeve running shirt that I had in the drop bag.  I hesitated because I honestly thought things were going to get steadily better.  There was not as much snow at the lodge as there was up on top, and though I knew there was a little climbing to the Pipeline AS, I didn’t remember it being very much.  I figured I would be quickly descending out of the cold snow, through a bit of drizzle, and on to the finish.  14 miles seemed like such a short sprint.  I was even thinking I could do it in under 2 hours and come close to my 10:30 goal.

I downed a full can of cola and said a quick goodbye to Brenda and the girls.  I carefully made my way across the wooden deck, which was now becoming quite slick, and plopped down onto the muddy service road.  My shoes were already wet, but they now got thoroughly soaked.  I was keeping a decent pace, as I tend to run faster in the cold, and was additionally spurred on by the threat of hypothermia.

The snow was not letting up as I had hoped.  It was actually coming down much heavier and the wind was now blowing harder.  I had a choice of running through the couple of inches of slushy water in the narrow trail, or the wet snow on the grassy sides.  I did a bit of both, and though I could feel my feet sloshing around in my shoes, they didn’t get cold.  I wish that I could say the same for my hands.  I had on my $0.99 disposable, cotton gloves, which are perfect for those brisk, early morning starts.  They are definitely not suited to long periods of, cold, wet running, especially for someone with poor hand circulation like me.  I kept the hands tucked in under the poncho, but that wasn’t enough to keep them warm or dry.  I tried to tuck the bottles under my armpits so that I could warm my hands a bit, but somehow, my arms were getting wetter and colder.  By the time I figured out that one of the bottle tops was not screwed on properly, any remaining dry portions of my shirt were long gone.  On the open-field climb up towards Pipeline, the snow was building up and the wind getting worse.  It was now a full on blizzard.  As I passed a runner in a tee shirt, with no gloves, I could offer nothing but encouraging words.  At least he looked young and tough.  Norman was 29 and passed me later on, beating me by 12 minutes.

I ran right past the Pipeline AS, without even stopping and the volunteers yelled after me to get my bib number.  As I ran on up the hill, I saw Erin again, leaving the AS with a cup in her hand.  It gave me a bit of a boost to know that I had caught up to her, but as we trudged up the road, the weather kept deteriorating – more snow and more cold wind.  I kept fumbling with my bottles and poncho and eventually Erin passed me.  We were periodically passing 50K runners, but they were much slower and I didn’t want to be out there all alone in those conditions, so I pushed myself to keep close to Erin.  Once we topped out and started contouring the ridge, she really picked up the pace.  It felt like we were flying, though looking at the splits on my Garmin, we were only running 10 to 12 minute miles.  I was keenly aware that in these conditions, a simple slip on the slick trail, or a missed turn would have spelled disaster.  I was literally running for my life!

My stupid poncho was really a chore to manage in the wind and though it probably saved my race (and my life), it also cost me at least 15 minutes and lots of frustration.  I stayed on Erin’s tail until we passed the next aid station.  The volunteers were huddled in a tent and I only made a quick stop to ask them to fix one of my bottles.  The bottom strap had slipped off and I had been gripping it with my frozen hands for the last few miles.  By this point, the wind was dying down, the snow had changed over to drizzle, and the temperature was slowly climbing.  The weather was finally improving!  Unfortunately, I had not eaten anything for quite a while and had drunk very little.  With the adrenaline easing back, so was my pace and just as Erin was disappearing into the distance, Norman, the young, gloveless runner that I had previous passed came flying by.  He had survived and recovered marvelously and it was now his turn to throw some encouraging words my way.

At this point, I was able to finally take off the aggravating poncho, yet started to feel an unpleasant stinging on my chest.  That wet shirt, which kept me from getting hypothermic for the past couple of hours, had done a number on my nipples – ouch!  Just what I needed.  These last 5 miles were tough for me.  Though the weather was now perfect and the course mostly downhill, I was working hard, running slow, and couldn’t wait to cross the line.  The scenery was stunning and even though this section of the trail was slick with sloppy clay mud, being able to look around made it enjoyable.  The mountains behind were now out of the clouds and covered in white.  The steep walls of the surrounding valleys were highlighted by rays of sunlight.  Absolutely beautiful!

Based on comments from previous AS volunteers, I was expecting the course to be a bit long.  What a pleasant and unexpected surprise when I came up on a sign that read “1 mile to go!”  What a cruel joke!  The sign was apparently referring to the Last Chance AS, not the coveted finish line.  I hope the comment I made to the volunteers about false advertising came across with the intended humor.  They certainly redeemed themselves with the hash browns and chunks of burrito they offered me.  They also told me that the race had been shut down due to the weather and I was the last 50 miler.  That was somewhat a relief as I had been worried about friends and other runners further back.  Conditions were downright dangerous.

I threw my shirt, poncho and gloves into the trash and headed down the trail towards the finish.  I passed a few more 50Kers and came to the final climb – a couple of hundred feet up a steep, narrow, 3’ deep swale that had been worn into the rocks.  I popped out onto the road and mustered up enough energy to run through the finish chute.

I stumbled into the Posse Shack at the finish so I could grab a shirt before my body totally shut down and started to shiver.  I found David and Katrin Silva and Rachel StClaire sitting around, exchanging stories of the crazy day.  David had run the 50K and took every opportunity to happily rub in the fact that he and I were the only two of the group to actually finish the race as Katrin and Rachel been pulled off the course.  I was quite thrilled with my first ever DFL (dead f’n last).  For the 50 miler (53.25 miles by my Garmin), 210 had registered, 174 toed the start line, and I was the 20th (and last) to cross the finish line, despite being ranked 66th by Ultra Signup.  What an adventure!

Garmin file 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Collegiate Peaks Trail Run - 50M

I had originally planned on staying the night in Buena Vista and making this race into another family trip, but due to a number of circumstances, including the fact that local hotels were outrageously priced, that did not work out.  So instead, I set the alarm for 3:00 AM, to give myself adequate time for the drive over from Manitou SPring to the start of the Collegiate Peaks Trail Run.  I wound up waking up at 2:30, and after 15 minutes of tossing and turning, decided to just get up and go, on 4 hours of sleep.

The drive was uneventful.  I listened to an audio book of The Google Story, while enjoying my breakfast – buttered blueberry bagel, 12 oz. of club soda mixed with 4 oz. of OJ, and about 10 oz. of a chocolate Silk and chia seed slurry.

The early departure and quick drive made for an early arrival.  It was nice that all the pre-race activities were housed in the community center – much better than hanging out in the car for an hour+.  I was able to go through my pre-race ritual in comfort and use indoor plumbing instead of a port-o-potty.  Not wanting to stroll around topless, I also used the men’s room to apply a liberal coating of sunscreen.  As I was doing so, one of the guys waiting in line for the facilities jokingly asked “Hey, you want me to rub some lotion on your back?”  “Thanks, but I’d rather get skin cancer” was my reply, and we all had a good laugh.

Outside, I ran into a few familiar faces before the start.  Christy McLaughlin and Sean Wetstine spotted me.  I looked around for Rachel StClaire as she had posted a picture from the start the previous night, but didn’t see her anywhere.  After the race, I saw her Facebook post, noting that she had thought she registered for the race, but had actually not, so she left and did a training run on her own.

I wasn’t paying close attention while milling about the start, and before I knew it, a voice was counting down – 5, 4, 3…  I barely had time to pull off my shirt and push the start button on the Garmin.  Additionally, I found myself right near the front, where I had no intention of being on a race of this length and a field of this size.  We crossed the road and made our way through the parking lot, where I tossed my shirt on top of my car.  With temps starting out in the upper 30’s, the air was chilly and refreshing so I kept my gloves on till the second aid station.  Over the first few hundred yards, lots of runners went zipping by.  Even over the first few miles, more runners raced by, panting.  I kept thinking to myself “if I can hear your breathing a mile into a 25 or 50 mile race, you’re working too hard”.  I wasn’t foolish enough to give unsolicited advice, but seriously…

It’s tough watching runners pass, even early on in a long race.  There’s always a level of self-doubt.  Should I be going out faster while the legs are fresh and the temps are low?  This time, in addition to 165 races of experience, I also had physical issues to hold me back.  I was concerned about my stiff knees after hammering the downhills on the previous week’s 50K.  My calves were a bit sore having done some training miles in my Vibram 5-Fingers, and running some hard, fast sprints as recently as Thursday.  And my Achilles had also been feeling a bit tight.  All of these held me back to what turned out to be a smart pace early on.  It wasn’t until the 6th mile that I started to slowly pass people and other than a few that I traded positions with for a while, no one passed me.

The mileage was pretty much spot on at all the aid stations.  I like the accuracy and predictability.  We went through a few short sections of soft sand, but most of the course was nice and firm.  Somewhere around 6.7 miles, a creek crossed over the road.  Most of us tried to gingerly walk over some branches to keep our feet dry, but that didn’t work very well - one foot was partly wet, and the other completely.  They dried off quickly enough and I looked forward to the cool water on the return trip when the temperature would be higher.

There are two main climbs on each loop, but in between, there are lots of small, sometimes steep, ups and downs.  This keeps things interesting, but makes it hard to get into a really good rhythm for long.  Approaching the final peak of the first lap, at mile 18, I was feeling pretty fresh and continuing to slowly pass other runners.  I caught up to Christy and we chatted for a few minutes  Once we topped out, I tried to relax into what I knew was going to be a fast, yet pleasant 7 mile downhill back to Buena Vista and the half-way point.

A short way down, I came up on JT, from Colorado Springs.  We talked for a while about last weekend’s CMTR, and his upcoming Leadman, but after a mile and a half or so, I pulled back a bit, as he was pushing too fast and I knew we weren’t even half done yet.  My decision was definitely correct.  I wound up passing JT for good a short time later, and after the turn-a-round, he told me he was dropping out.

The top part of the decent had been a bit steep and fast, but the bottom part followed the old Midland railroad grade and was perfect for dropping my average pace, without killing the quads or destroying my knees.  I wound up running for a couple of miles with Andy, who was a Leadville 100 regular and as we got close to town, a gal caught up to us.  It turned out to be Christy.  She recovered well after the climb and was making up time on the decent.  I told her she had a shot at her 4:15 goal, and she was pretty close, missing it by just over a minute.

We made it down to the bottom, ran across a pedestrian bridge over the Arkansas, and made our way through the parking lot towards the turn-a-round.  I stopped at my car, swapped out the hand-held bottle for a fresh one, swallowed another Aleve, and gulped down a can of Coke.  I made it through the turn-a-round 3 minutes behind my self-imposed schedule – not bad!  Negative splits would put me right back on goal.

I was feeling pretty good about my time, but knew that climbing back up 7 miles would slow things down, especially now that the sun was out in full force.  The climb wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated, though.  The railroad grade actually allowed for a somewhat reasonable pace without over taxing me.  I was passing other 50 mile runners, who had clearly gone out too fast – payback!  The bottom half was also nice and social, as there were still plenty of runners headed down.  I exchanged a quick “great job” or “nice work” with each of them, but after a while, it got pretty lonely out there.  I ran the rest of the way back by myself – passing a runner every couple of miles, but never running with anyone.  This made the minutes tick by a bit slow, but at least I was able to run my own pace.

All told, I passed 10 runners on the return trip (yes, I was counting), including Sean - that made me feel pretty good.  Despite the fatigue of all those miles and the strong sun, I was still able to throw down some pretty respectable splits for the last 3 miles (8:24, 8:29, 8:08).  I crossed the line in 8:44:05, 14 minutes past my arbitrary goal time, but I felt that it was a good race, none the less.  Top 10 finish.  My knees, calves and Achilles all held up.  And though I didn’t manage to run negative splits, I was pretty darn close, running the second half only 8 minutes slower than the first.  Hopefully this is a sign of continuing maturity on my part, and not just a one-time fluke.

I kept myself pretty well hydrated throughout, evidenced by the fact that after the race, I was able to squat down to stretch and get back up without any light-headedness at all.  Nutrition-wise, I ate 1 peanut butter pack, 2 Honey Stinger Wafers, more than a dozen cookies from the aid stations, along with handfuls of chips and pretzels, and quite a few cups of Coke.  Though I carried a couple of gels with me the whole time, I only used one, about 4 miles from the end.  I swallowed about a dozen S-Caps throughout the day and used a single bottle at a time, filled with Shaklee Performance, and some lemon juice to cut the sweetness.  Along the way, I just topped off with water, which seemed to work well.  Unfortunately, at the last aid station, the volunteer apparently poured Heed instead of water into my bottle.  Even diluted, it was an unpleasant surprise.

I made a very wise move and bought a bag of ice before settling in for the 2 hour drive back home.  I put some in the cooler and split the rest into 2 bags, each strapped to a knee with a long-sleeve shirt.  I kept these ice packs on for over an hour and they made a huge difference.  The next day, I felt almost no discomfort at all in my knees.

The race was well managed and run.  The volunteers, as usual, were wonderful and supportive.  The only slight disappointment was that they didn’t have results at the finish and took 4 days to post them online.  I know, most people wouldn’t get hung up on something like this, but that’s the overly competitive, obsessive, impatient side of me.

The course was absolutely magnificent.  Most of it was on 4-wheel drive roads in the hills, east of Buena Vista.  Constant views to the snow-capped 14’ers of the Collegiate Peaks were stunning and the non-technical terrain allowed for lots of gawking, without the fear of a face-plant.  I would definitely run this race again and recommend it to anyone who wants a scenic 25 or 50 mile challenge.  The overall distance and the splits are quite accurate and there’s a gain/loss of almost 3,000’ per loop.