Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Run Rabbit Run 2014

Of the 168 entrants in the Tortise Division, Ultra Signup had me ranked as 22nd, with an estimated finish time of 26:54:30.  This is one of the few (maybe only) ultra races that separates the “pros” from the “amateurs”.  This is a self-separation process that occurs at registration.  The Hares (pros) start later, have a shorter cut-off (30 hours instead of 36), and are not allowed pacers or trekking poles, yet they compete for the majority of the cash prizes.  RRR boasts the biggest prize purse of any ultra - $50,000, and the winners (male and female) will walk away with $12,000 each.  The Tortoises (amateurs, like me) start earlier, have a 36 hour limit, can have pacers and trekking poles, but only compete for a small portion of the prize purse – the winners get $250 each.  Additional effects of the dual start are that amateurs get to see the big-wig pros somewhere in the middle of the race, plus everyone has to run through the night.

So, even though I don’t use poles, expect to finish well under 30 hours in even the worst case scenario, and am running without a pacer, I decided to be a tortoise.  There’s no way I can place in the top 7 of the hares (sub-20 hours) to win any of the prize money, and I didn’t want to start at noon.  I figured I might have a shot at placing in the tortoise division and walking away with $100+.

As race day draws closer, the forecast gets better and better, dropping from a high of 69 to 60, with 0% chance of precipitation.  Running during the day should be perfect, nighttime might be a different story.  It’s supposed to drop down around freezing.  That would just fine for 50K or less, but the potential fatigue of a 100 makes those cold temperatures potentially disastrous.  If I have another melt-down, like I did at Leadville, it will be scary.  I did think I was going to have a pacer for a while there, but work got in the way and she had to back out.  That’s OK.  I like to be independent and self-sufficient.

The plan, as usual, is to get there the evening before for the mandatory pre-race meeting, then spend the night in the back of the car.  With an 8:00 AM start, I’m hoping to get a decent night’s sleep, since even with a perfect race, I will be running through the entire night.  My goal is to break 26 hours, though I think I can be below 24 if I run smart.  My secondary goal is to beat Cole, my Leadville pacer.  He’s a good guy and I definitely appreciated his help at Leadville, but given that he’s exactly half my age, beating him would be ultra sweet.  Third goal would be to win some prize money.

RRR is only 4 weeks after Leadville, though I hadn’t suffered any damage, it’s a bit close for another 100 miler.  But I felt like I hadn’t run at 100% and was itching for another chance to prove myself.  I had also run the Javalina Jangover 50K in Arizona only 5 days prior, which I was repeatedly warned against doing.  Then, to top it all off, I had a 5 mile trail race on Wednesday evening – just 2 days before the big race.  My thought was that I could recover from a 50K in a week (or less, in this case) and the 5 miler would be good speed-work.


As usual, things did not work out completely to plan.  They started out just fine.  I was pretty close to the fast end of my time estimates most of the day.

The race started out with a steep 3,500 foot climb up Mt. Werner.  With the pro Hares starting separately, 4 hours later, I was surprised that so much of the field was way up in front of me.  I honestly expected to be closer to the front, without pushing too hard.  I told myself that these guys were only going to blow up later and just settled into a “comfortable” pace.  Cole was with me for the first half of the climb and then slowly pulled away (or I fell back), but not by a worrisome amount.

It was still quite cold in the shade, and the tall grasses were coated with a beautiful layer of frost.  The valley below had some scattered clouds, but towards the north, it was a solid blanket of white.  It’s so awesome being up above the clouds when you’ve gotten there via your own two feet and not in a plane.  A number of spectators and other runners commented on the wisdom of my no-shirt approach, but I was pretty comfortable, and I knew that as soon as we hit the direct sun at the top, the temperature would quickly rise.  The thin gloves helped, but my fingers still became pretty useless and I had to really fumble with the first peanut butter pack I ate.

After finally cresting the mountain, we were welcomed into the first aid station by three very enthusiastic young ladies, screaming, cheering, and singing.  As nice as that was, I was hoping they would have the same level of energy at 2:00 AM when I would really need it.

I grabbed a couple of snacks, topped off the hand-held with water, and I was out at about 1:31, right at the low end of my estimate, despite the section being ½ mile long.  I figured I was somewhere in the middle of the pack at this point, which would have been just right, but I still had some lingering doubts since the really fast runners weren’t even on the course yet.

Things really warmed up on the next section as we were running through the trees, but not shaded by the mountain anymore.  This single-track to Long Lake is nice and rolling, though generally downhill.  The moderately sized field was well dispersed on the initial climb, so even though we were still sorting ourselves out, there were no back-ups.  We finally made it to the turn-off to Long Lake, which I though was pretty obvious, but I had to direct the runner in front to make the right turn.  The course markings could have been a bit better, but for anyone who had read the course description or glanced at the maps, it should have been clear.

Cole was going back out of the aid station as I was going in, so he was only a few minutes ahead.  I had a drop bag here and took just a couple of quick minutes to down a can of club soda and grab some supplies before heading back down the trail.  At the junction, I had to once again direct a couple of runners who almost followed us down, instead of turning towards the aid station.  I ran a good bit of this section with a guy from Albuquerque, who unfortunately dropped out later in the race.  The top part of the decent was quite nice, though we hit a couple of muddy, boggy areas that got the shoes wet.  Almost 2 miles down, we came across two runners who were coming back up the trail.  They had apparently turned left instead of right at the intersection and were now retracing their steps to go back up to Long Lake.  They did not look happy!

The descent got steeper and rockier as we neared the upper falls.  We passed a few runners, but progress was sometimes slow due to the steep, technical trail.  As we got lower, there were also more hikers on the trail, coming up to see the falls.  The trail finally crossed the bridge, with lots more hikers around, and climbed up a short uphill to the trailhead.

Thought he hikers encouraged us on, this was the first real opportunity for spectators.  The parking lot was crowded and I didn’t need to re-fill, so I just ran through and onto the paved road section.  Most of this was downhill and relatively fast, passing by some high-priced homes and then dropping into town.  There were cardboard bunny signs on the edge of the road, warning vehicles to watch out for runners.  One of these was laying in mangled pieces, making me ponder – if people would purposely run over a cardboard bunny, what would they do to runner?

I just missed the light at the main street and had to wait for an agonizingly long minute to cross.  A short section on the bike path, an almost-missed turn off of it, and we arrived at Olympian Hall.  Sean was there.  He told me that Cole had just left (still only minutes ahead) and that the lead runners were 45 minutes up.  I went inside the building to the actual aid station and was greeted by Enrique, who helped me get stuff out of my drop bag and sprayed me down with sunscreen.

The course continued on past the ski-jump and up the hill for a couple of miles, including the “Lane of Pain”, which wasn’t really all that scary – just a steep road to walk up.  The top was much more rolling than I had anticipated, but eventually, we got to the trail junction and onto some more single-track.  At one point, the trail followed a fence and as I ran along, I heard a weird buzzing sound.  I glanced over to see a partially decomposed deer about 3 feet off the trail.  The buzzing was coming from hundreds of flies.  I was quite thankful that we weren’t going to be running this section at night.  No telling what that would attract after dark.

The trail slowly meandered and rolled downhill towards the Cow Creek aid station.  This section was exposed and hot in the mid-day sun.  I passed through the aid station pretty quickly and headed on up the road.  Even though there was only a moderate climb, I walked much of it until we turned off onto a trail again, which got into some nice, cool, shaded aspen.  The climb back up was not nearly as bad as I had expected.  The rolling terrain made much of it runnable, though the top seemed to be ever elusive.

Once we got back to the trail junction at the top of the hill, we ran into two way traffic for the first time.  In addition to some of the slower Tortoises, there were many Hares.  I was quite surprised that by the time we got down close to Olympian Hall again, some of the Hares looked quite ragged.  Some looked like they just weren’t going to make it.

Back at Olympian, Enrique was there again to help me out.  I was also surprised to see Cole and Sean, figuring that Cole’s lead would have only increased.  I hit the bathrooms to wash my salty face, downed a club soda and grabbed a most delicious breakfast burrito on the way out.

Upon leaving Olympian, I managed to get caught at the red light again.  After finally crossing, I was back on the black-top of Fish Creek Falls Road.  The run down was fast, but going back up, I just didn’t have a whole lot of energy, so I took it easy and walked quite a bit.

After going through the trail head, and dropping down to the bridge, we started up the big climb, back to Long Lake.  A short way up, I was passed by a couple of runners and then, Sean and Cole.  I was confused as I thought they were already in front, but apparently they left Olympian after me and must not have run up the road much faster.

The sun was lowering in the western sky and the temperature as well.  The light was beautiful on the changing foliage, along with pink wisps in the sky.  I had picked up a long-sleeved shirt at Olympian and had to put it on as the sun set.  Near the flattening top of the climb, I also caught back up with Cole.  I wasn’t moving overly fast and I could tell he was running low on energy, but he wanted to push on to the nearing aid station.

I had to flip on my flashlight for the last mile or so, but we soon made it to Long Lake again.  I took just a few minutes to resupply and pull out the Ultimate Direction pack that I had stashed there, but Cole and Sean took off well ahead of me.  The temperature was dropping rapidly so I decided to put on a second shirt, gloves, and broke open a couple of hand warmers - those really saved me throughout the night.  I even put on a pair of pants – something I rarely do, even in the wintertime.  I also hooked up the charger for my Garmin, but didn’t realize until much later that I had neglected to plug the other end into the battery, so it died after a few more hours.

My plan was to use one hand-held bottle, and one in the chest pocket of the pack, but with the cold temperatures, I didn’t really want to be holding a bottle, so I striped the handle off and stuck both bottles into my chest pockets.  This actually worked out quite well and though I held onto a flashlight all night, the free hand made it much easier to eat, and swap the light to keep my hands warm.

I left Long Lake and headed north towards Summit Lake, assuming the course to be climbing the whole way.  It was actually more rolling than expected and I hooked up with a guy from Boulder running his first 100 and his pacer.  We ran together on and off for the next 10 miles or so.  The night was dark and the stars shone brightly.  We had heard rumors that the Northern Lights may be visible due to a solar storm, but unfortunately they never appeared.

I made it to Summit Lake, which was a very welcoming and well-run station.  They had a great tent with a heater in the middle and a bunch of chairs surrounding it.  I checked in and a volunteer grabbed my bag.  I had a can of Coke and a couple of cups of ramen while I replaced batteries and supplies.  It would have been nice to linger, but I didn’t.  The next 12 miles would be mostly downhill.

I left with the Boulder guys again and we ran together for the first couple of miles as an incredibly bright moon rose behind us.  After a bit of gently rolling terrain, we headed down.  There were a few vehicles on the road and campers off the sides.  At one point, not far from the top, there was a huge bon fire ahead that lit up a vast area.  We thought it might be some kind of official race thing, but it turned out to just be campers.  Once the road started to really descend, I was able to run a bit faster and took off on my own.  I was feeling pretty good running this long downhill section and eventually came to a short uphill and a volunteer directing runners into the Dry Lake Aid Station.  This one was accessible to crews and there were lots of people around.  The volunteers were doing a fine job, but this station just wasn’t as runner-focused as the others.  There was no fire or heater to sit around and a bit crowded – it just felt overwhelming after the quiet solitude of the night.

The next section continued downhill, though back on single-track.  It was not long after I hit the trail that the lead Tortoises started coming back up.  I had assumed all day that the leaders had gone out too fast and would burn out, but it wasn’t happening that way.  These guys were a couple of hours ahead of me and there were quite a few of them.  I counted runners for a while, but there were so many, that it was rather depressing, so I gave up.  I knew I was running a good race and there was just nothing I could do about how others were running.  I just tried to enjoy the rolling downhill and marked off the miles with the beeps from my Garmin, still in the back of my pack.

Just as I came within sight of the Spring Creek aid station, a returning runner greeted me.  I was a bit startled and asked who it was, than was surprised by Cole’s voice - he was still only a few minutes in front of me.  I went into the aid station, which seemed to be in some kind of a large gazebo, and went through my routine of changing batteries and resupplying while I downed another Coke.  I looked around for a FB friend who said she might come up to pace me, but wasn’t sure.  She wasn’t there and the volunteers gave me some strange and worried looks for going it alone.  I felt pretty comfortable.  I hadn’t been truly alone for any great distance and though the company would have been quite welcomed, I was able to more easily make micro-adjustments to my pace being on my own.

I kicked myself for leaving without disconnecting the charger and putting the Garmin back on my wrist.  Had I done so, I would have finally realized my goof and could have corrected it.  A short while after I hit the trail again, I heard another beep from my pack, but this one was different and I knew it had gone dead.  Oh well.  I shrugged it off and concentrated on climbing back up towards Dry Lake.

I figured that this late in the race, and on an uphill, I would surely start passing more runners, after all, I had been running a smart race and they had all gone out too hard.  Why wasn’t this panning out?  Again, I tried not to focus on the negative, gave myself a pat on the back for running smartly, and took some solace in the fact that there were still 30 miles to go.

I came through Dry Lake again, drank another Coke, grabbed some snacks, and moved on.  This climb back up the road, which I had run so well on a few hours ago, seemed to take forever.  There were still lots of runners coming down, and I passed a few going up, which kept things from getting too lonely.  All the campers had extinguished their fires and gone to bed by now.  There were a few jogging opportunities, interspersed with lots of walking.  At least I was walking pretty fast and strong, but 7.5 miles is a long stretch, in the dark, at a slow pace, and I no longer had the beeps to help me tick off the miles.

The Boulder guy passed me again, but I couldn’t move quite as fast as him and his pacer.  Only a few cars passed by this time around, but I noticed that 2 of them were sheriff’s deputies.  That seemed strange on a relatively remote road, away from town.  I later found out that a couple of runners had been harassed by some punks in a pick-up truck.  I didn’t get any more details than that, but was pleased that the complaints were taken seriously enough to send to patrol cars out in the middle of the night.

Just as I was finally approaching Summit Lake again, I came upon another runner/pacer combo.  I was shocked to see Cole yet again and we went into the aid station together.  I would have taken an extra minute or two, but Cole and his pacer rushed through, and I was a little bit concerned about being on the next section all alone, so I ran after them.  Within a half mile, I started pushing forward and left them behind.  Not long after, I had to make my first pit-stop of the race – after 80+ miles and more than 20 hours in.  I was quite pleased with the way I managed my stomach and fuel intake.  I also did a good job with the fluids as I was still peeing every couple of hours.  My “quick” pace didn’t last the whole way, and after a few miles, I was passed by a couple of runners.  I wasn’t sure if they were Tortoises or Hare’s, but I couldn’t do anything about it.  Though I had slowed a bit, I was still running “my race” and wasn’t going to burn myself out by trying to chase them.

The sky started to slowly brighten as I finally reached the turn-off to Long Lake.  I hadn’t studied the map closely enough, so I thought I was closer to the aid station than I actually was.  I passed another runner on this section and started to speed up a bit.  I was able to turn off the light before I got into the aid station, though the sun wasn’t yet up.

I sat by the fire, resupplied from my drop bag and ate a whole bunch of grilled cheese pieces.  I could have gone for some fresh pancakes, but the grilled cheese hit the spot.  I just didn’t want to overdo it with the cheese.  I then asked what time it was, since I still running “blind” without the Garmin - 6:40.  I did some “quick” calculations in my tired and sleep-deprived brain.  If I could run the next 14 miles in less than 3:20, I could make it in under 26 hours.  I figured it might be close, but would be a pretty good consolation prize.

So I took off and tried to run as much as possible.  The sun was starting to come up, but the temperature wouldn’t rise just yet.  The stretch from Long Lake to Mt. Werner was generally uphill, but rolling enough to run a good bit.  I felt like I still had pretty decent speed on the descents, but not a whole lot of power for the climbs.  About halfway through, I finally came across the 50 mile leaders.  Soon, there were lots of runners coming down the trail and they all had words of encouragement to share.

It felt good to finally get to the Mt. Werner station and be done with the climbs.  I could definitely handle some more downhill.  I put away my hat, gloves, and jacket, and would have taken the pants off, but I didn’t want to waste time.  It was now 8:18.  There’s was no way I could miss the 26 hour mark, but there were a couple of other runners at the aid station and I wanted to make up whatever positions I could.

I ran the next mile or so at a reasonable pace but then I glanced back at one of the turns and saw a runner a few hundred yards back.  I just couldn’t stand to lose a position this close to the finish.  I ran the next 3 miles at about a 7 minute pace (at least I think it was a 7 minute pace, since I didn’t have my Garmin on), and didn’t bother to look back.  I passed one runner and figured there was no way that anyone could have kept up with me.  With about 2 to go, I was just about to ease up a bit when I looked back and there was that previous runner, now only 50 feet back!

I was disheartened.  If he had kept up and even gained on me on that fast stretch, I didn’t have much hope of holding him off, but for some reason, I tried anyway.  For the next 2 miles, I pushed myself harder than ever before, running all out, and almost out of control.  This was all downhill, but after 100+ miles, I was shocked at my pace.  I just knew I was running sub 6 minute miles and the final mile was back onto a trail with nice ankle-twisting rocks.  It was too dangerous to look back, so I just ran, waiting to be passed at any moment.  With a few hundred yards left, I asked a spectator if I was being chased.  She looked at me funny as she said “no, there’s no one behind you”.  I could ease up now, but the finish was in sight and I kept pushing, crossed the bridge, down the plaza, up the half dozen steps, and into the arms of the designated hugger.

25:12:55 – I managed to finish almost 2 minutes ahead of that other runner, who turned out to be the female Hare winner, Nikki Kimball, actually beating me by almost 4 hours.  I didn’t really need to race her, but doing so probably shaved a good 10 minutes off my time and being able to sprint so strongly after all those miles made me feel good.

The race was well managed and pretty well marked.  There were a few places that could have used some more/clearer markings, but there was no excuse for getting lost if you had read the description, looked at the maps, and were paying attention.  The food at the aid stations was great - I really appreciated all the Honey Stinger products and the ramen.

The format of the race is interesting.  The separate start for the Hares & Tortoises, plus the out and back sections really kept things lively, with minimal time alone on the course.  The loneliest sections were from Summit Lake to Long Lake, and then towards Mt. Werner, until the 50 milers came along.  For a race with a relatively small field, that’s pretty good.  It was also kind of nice to finish with so many spectators around, though I would have gladly given that up to finish a few hours earlier.

In the previous two years, my time would have been good enough for 2nd place and some prize money.  This year, the Tortoise division was much more competitive and I finished 11th - a bit disappointing, but I can't control how well everyone else runs.  Cole also ran a good race, taking a couple of hours off his last year's time, but I managed to beat him by almost an hour.
I was hoping to break 24 hours, but I really can’t complain.  This race was much harder than Leadville – 5+ miles longer, 5,000+ feet more elevation gain, more nighttime running, etc.  In the end, I ran a really smart race.  I managed my pace just right and was able to run the last 14 miles fairly well, including a really strong sprint over the last 5 miles.  I managed my hydration and nutrition well also.  I don’t know that I would really change anything, except maybe to rest up a bit during the previous week, though I can’t say how much of a difference that would have made.  Other than one blister and a few days of muscle soreness, I fared well overall.

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