Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Antelope Canyon 100

With an almost 10 hour drive ahead of me, I decided to split it up and go half-way Thursday evening, right after work.  This way, I would also have extra time to hit at least one of Matt’s trifecta challenges on Friday.  So when the clock hit 5:00, I jumped in the car (which was very fully loaded) and hit the road.  The drive was pretty boring, other than having to stop twice to pee (shouldn’t have drunk so much tea in the afternoon).  I planned on making out to the Moab exit on I-70.  I checked it out on Google Earth and there’s a gas station right at the exit with a large dirt area that’s clearly used by truckers.  Despite the bathroom breaks, I got there right at 10:00.  I drove to the far western end of the dirt field, set up my sleeping gear in the back of the Subaru and turned in for the night.

Being a bit off off the highway, the distant headlights were occasionally visible, but not enough to be bothersome.  After a few hours, my undersized bladder woke me.  At the time, I noticed that there was a police car at the gas station a couple of hundred yards away. Not thinking much of it, I quickly went back to sleep.

A short bit later, at exactly 1:58 AM, I woke again and looked up to see some lights shining, which seemed closer and brighter than the far off highway traffic.  Just as I groggily sat up, I was greeted with “SHOW US YOUR HANDS! OPEN THE DOOR”  (Luckily, I had emptied my bladder recently, so I didn’t mess up my bedding)
I responded very clearly with “Doors are locked.  I need to reach for my keys”
“DO IT!”
I found the key fob, opened the rear passenger side door and was greeted by a police officer with a flashlight and shotgun pointed at me, while his partner was doing the same from the other side of the car.
“Adrian Stanciu, from Colorado. This is my car.”  Given the recent pot legalization in our state, I probably should have left that information out, but they had probably seen my plates anyway.  They never asked for ID as they were eager to continue their search, though they did suggest that I might not want to spend the rest of the night there.  Upon noticing the number of other police cars in the area, I quickly jumped into the front seat, put the key into the ignition and hit the road towards Moab.  As I passed under the I-70 overpass, I noticed that additional police cars were blocking off the on-ramps.  There must have been at least 10 cars!

On the wide-eyed, adrenaline fueled drive south on 191 towards Moab, another 10 police cars came flying up in ones and twos with lights blazing.  I didn’t know they had that many police cars in all of Utah.  Clearly, whoever they were looking for was guilty of more than just an unpaid parking ticket.

I got into Moab and looked around for a “safe” place to park and resume my sleep for a few more hours.  I pulled off onto one of the side street, just a block off the main drag and crawled into the back of the car, again.  The adrenaline was starting to wear off and soon enough I was asleep again.  I woke up around dawn and made a quick stop at the Golden Arches before resuming the drive.

Matt Gunn (Ultra Adventures’ race director) has set up this crazy Trifecta thing for every race. Basically, he picked out incredible destinations in the vicinity of the races and for each one that you do (and post a selfie with your race number) within 1 week prior to or after the event, you get 10% off the next race, up to 3 per race, and they can be accumulated, so if you’re serious, you could save some serious money.  As a UA ambassador I have committed to doing at least one per race.  Some of the locations are just not doable with my extremely tight schedule, but there were two that I could hit for Antelope Canyon.  The first, and easiest was Navajo National Monument, with less than a 10 mile drive out of the way, and a short ½ mile hike.  It was still chilly when I got there by mid-morning, and there were only 2 other vehicles present.  It’s a beautiful spot, but being so remote, in a state that is tightly packed national treasures, this one doesn’t get nearly as much visitation, especially in mid-February.

I packed on my selfie stick and three cameras as I headed on down the trail.  It’s a short, easy stroll along the top of the mesa, overlooking a beautiful valley.  From the viewpoint at the end of the trail, the vistas of the distant landscapes were beautiful, in addition to the cool cliff dwellings just on the other side of the valley.  I snapped a number of pictures and the requisite selfie.  I’m glad there were no there tourists around at that particular moment, as I would have appeared to be even more self centered than usual.

I drove on and got to the start area in Page right around noon.  After brief chats with some of the others gathered around, I headed off to attempt the Cable Trail, another one of Matt’s trifecta’s.  I was a bit concerned about this one.  First of all, it was supposed to be tricky to find.  Secondly, the trail description made it sound rather scary.  On the way, I stopped off at the Hoover Dam visitor Center and asked if they had any good maps or directions.  The older gentleman behind the volunteer desk did his best to discourage me from attempting something so dangerous.  Nothing was going to stop me now.

I found the general area, parked next to the only other car there, and headed out.  I soon saw two ladies finishing up their lunch.  Turns out they were also runners and were about to attempt to find the Cables.  The three of us headed off together and eventually made our way to the edge of the plateau, overlooking the mighty Colorado River.  We peered over the sheer, vertical edge, and gulped, wondering how the heck anyone would get down that without a wing suit.  We decided that we must have come out to far down canyon, so we made our way north along the rim.  After a while, my companions decided to give up, but I was determined to find it.  A few minutes after parting, I saw the cable posts part way down, marked with pink flagging (which Matt had placed to help us find it).  Unfortunately the ladies were out of range for me to call back, so I continued on my own.

The top part of the route was pretty tame.  Beautiful, but in no way scary.  Part way down, there was 10’ drop through a narrow crack that would have been a bit tricky if someone hadn’t left a rope tied to one of the old cable posts.  This wasn’t a climbing rope.  Just a ⅜” white nylon rope you’d get from the hardware store, but it felt sturdy enough and the height was manageable.  It really just served as an easy and convenient hand-hold.

A bit further down, there was another, similar obstacle with a length of webbing as an aid.  A bit more scrambling and I came down to the actual cable section.  The two cables probably weren’t a hundred feet and the slope such that with a bit of care, the cables weren’t even necessary, but quite helpful.  I had packed work gloves as Matt had suggested, and wished they were thicker leather.  Most of the cables were in decent shape, but in a couple of spots, the outer strands frayed enough to provide some unwelcomed acupuncture to the palms.

I made it down to the river and wished that I could take a dip, but that would have required sliding, or jumping the last few feet into the water.  There probably was some better access, if I had explored a bit more, but I had been out way longer than anticipated and didn’t even bring a snack.  I took a bunch of pictures and marveled at beauty of the river and the surrounding sandstone walls.  Trifecta number 2 done.

It may seem a bit odd for a race director to give discounts like this.  Matt is obviously not making money off these side trips.  If anything, he’s losing it.  But honestly, I would have never done either one of the trifectas without Matt’s encouragement.  The Cable Trail was absolutely magnificent!  I would highly recommend it to anyone who can handle some moderate scrambling.

By the time I got back to the start area, there were many more people around.  I checked in and ordered myself a Navajo taco.  Good thing I was hungry.  The thing was larger than the plate.  Over the next couple of hours, I chatted with fellow runners and double checked my drop bags.  Matt gave a brief course overview right after dark.  The main thing I got out of it was SAND.  We were to expect 35 of the first 40 miles to be slogging through deep, soft, loose sand.

Although the camp fires were enticing, I soon crawled into the back of the car for some much needed sleep.  I was still a bit groggy from the 2 AM wake up call.  I slept better than I usually do the night before a big race, and in back of the car.  I got up at 5 despite all the previous day’s preparations, and years of experience, I barely made to the line for the 6 AM start.

It was chilly, probably only in the upper 30’s so I started out with a longsleeve shirt and gloves.  There was a bit of reluctance to be right at the front, but once we were off, everyone seemed to be in quite a hurry.  The 50 and 100 milers started together and as usual, too many runners were going out too fast.  I could tell by their heavy breathing.

We crossed the highway (the only time that traffic would be stopped at a road crossing) and headed up the sandstone side of a mesa.  I tried to take a picture of the trailing stream of headlights, but without a tripod, the results were unusable.  We made our way up, across the top, and down the other side of the mesa, then settled into some longer stretches of the SAND that we were warned about.  It wasn’t long before I could feel small mounds of the stuff piled underneath my toes, but it was too early to stop.
We eventually made our way into the first canyon, about 4 miles in.  Most of us stopped and took pictures throughout.  This canyon section would be cut short due to flood damage and a nesting owl - both legitimate reasons, so no one complained.  We popped back out, ran on more SAND, and dropped down to the Antelope Aid Station.  From here, the next 3 miles were along the bottom of Antelope Wash - very wide, and filled with more (you guessed it) SAND.  This was an out and back section and only part way through, the lead runners were already racing back.  I was shocked to see that the 2nd runner was a 100 miler.  This turned out to be Dallas, who would go on to build up a lead of over 2 hours on me, which I would whittle back down to under 50 minutes.

Upper Antelope Canyon was a long, narrow slit in the seemingly impenetrable wall that blocked our way. There’s a reason that this is one of the most photographed slot canyons in the entire world.  It was absolutely magnificent!  Tight, undulating sandstone walls.  The only downside was that we were in there shortly after sunrise, on a cloudy morning.  The sky wasn’t very bright, and therefore the canyon was rather dark, but wow was it cool. 

Everyone was taking pictures. The canyon itself is not very long and soon enough we were out the other side.  After climbing up more loose SAND, and a brief traverse, we dropped back down into another slot canyon, only slightly less magnificent than previous one and with a short ladder part way through.  This dumped us out into the wide wash that we followed back down to the aid station.  Part way back, the trucks of tourists were already driving in, full of wide-eyed, open-mouthed faces wondering why those fools were running in the deep SAND.

From Antelope aid, we continued to retrace our steps but where the trail dropped back down into the first slot canyon, many footprints continued straight.  I almost missed it myself, but only by a dozen feet.  After coming out the other side, the route turned back on itself a bit and I saw a number of runners along the top of the canyon.  I shouted over to them that they had missed the turn into canyon.  I don’t think it would have made a real difference distance wise, but seeing the canyon again would certainly have been worth it.  Back along the SAND roads across the open desert, we climbed back on to the mesa just outside of town.  At this point, I finally stopped to empty out the SAND from my shoes.  I was surprised that so little came out.  Unfortunately, even though it was now warm enough that I had dumped off my shirt at the Antelope Aid Station, my hands were stiff and useless.  Between the chill air and the fact that the cuffs of my thin gloves were cutting down on my already poor circulation, I couldn’t use my fingers.  I was frustrated by the minutes that I wasted getting my Dirty Girl gaitors back on.  Once I did, I finally hit the trail again and tried to console myself with the fact that there were still 85 miles to go.  Unfortunately, the time seemed to have been truly wasted as my shoes felt just as sand-filled as before the stop.

Somewhere on top of the mesa, we turned off of our original route and headed more westward toward the Slickrock aid station.  This section was pretty uninspiring, with a road crossing, and of course, more SAND.

From Slickrock, we climbed up through some SAND, and onto another mesa as the 50K leaders were coming back.  Down the other side, there was a long, straight road made of…  wait for it… SAND!  It was actually pretty decent running downhill in the stuff, but I was really dreading the thought of having to come back up in a few hours.

Down at the bottom was the Horseshoe Bend aid station.  This was the first one that was crew accessible, so there were a number of families around to cheer and support.  Amongst the usual aid station fare, they had some unusual, yet tasty treats made of layered peanut butter, jelly and rice.  From here, we crossed the paved road and went through a wire fence, which was nicely spread open and padded with foam.  Soon we were at what I think was the highlight among highlights for this race - Horseshoe Bend.  I had already been treated to some pretty spectacular views on the Cable Trail the previous day, but this was even better.  We ran for miles, only feet away from the edge of vertical sandstone cliffs that fell away to to the mighty Colorado River below.  I don’t know about the lead runners, but everyone around me took time to take pictures of the majestic scenery, themselves, and each other.  Race?  What race?  Yes, we still ran, but my camera was out more than in my pocket.

It was in this section that I was caught by Travis McWhorter, a fellow UA ambassador.  We chatted for a bit, but soon he ran off into the distance while I was still distracted by the views.  After a while, we turned away from the ridge, but came back to it within a couple of miles.  This was the longest stretch between aid stations and though the temperatures were only in the low 60’s with a thin cloud layer, I was glad I had taken along an extra bottle.

I ran a bit with Sabrina from Breckenridge and we chatted about her upcoming Leadville race.  We eventually made it to the Waterholes aid station where I was treated to the most delectable polenta with feta and red peppers. From the aid station, we quickly dropped down into Waterholes Canyon.  The descent was a little interesting with some short, steep, scrambling sections.  More pictures, another ladder, more surreal undulating sandstone.

  Once out the other side, we climbed up and ran for a while on more SAND roads, eventually making it back to the Horseshoe Bend aid station.  I sat down to do some foot maintenance here.  They actually had loads of wet towels for runners to clean off with and I took advantage.  Once I took off my shoes, I realized why the previous sand dumping didn’t have much of a beneficial effect.  The bulk of the sand wasn’t in my shoes.  It was inside my socks!  I couldn’t believe how much I poured out.  I could have used those things as sandbags for flood control.

I emptied out all the sand that I could, cleaned my feet with a wet towel, and slobbered on a whole bunch of vaseline.  I then grabbed a huge handful of dates and figs and hit the road.  This was the uphill SAND section that I was dreading slightly more than all the other SAND sections.  For some reason, it didn’t feel quite as bad as I thought it would.  Maybe because I was looking forward to soon being done with the SAND.  Soon enough, I made it back up to the top of the mesa, over, and down the other side.  At Slickrock, I reapplied sunscreen, grabbed a few cupfuls of electrolyte gummie bears, and a couple of salt caps.  Then off I went through the last stretch of SAND.

I crossed the paved road near the parking area at the start and was slightly confused by the flagging but there was a gal in a pickup truck there to direct me.  Up the mesa I went as other (shorter distance) runners were coming down.  There was a short scramble to reach the top and then onto a gravel road for a few hundred yards to the Page Rim aid station where I reloaded pretty quickly and hit the trail.

Wow, what a nice trail to run on - firm single-track, mostly level.  It felt like I was flying!  I looked down at my watch as my average pace kept dropping.  After the first few miles, I reeled it in a bit.  As good as I felt, and as much as I was enjoying the lack of SAND, there were still almost 60 miles to go.
The views from the Page Ridge Trail were nice, including the blue waters of Lake Powell.  It wasn’t quite as spectacular as the morning’s scenery, but the solid footing certainly made up for it.  A short sandy climb (not as loose as earlier in the day) led us up the out-and-back to the Lake Powell aid station.  Once done, the short descent led us back to the continuation of the Rim Trail.  Within a half mile, the trail truly earned its name.  For the next quarter mile or so, the narrow trail was literally on the edge.  While there was no sheer vertical drop like above the Colorado River, the slope was steep enough to be deadly.  Along the Horseshoe Bend section, there was plenty of room to steer away from the edge, and if you did fall, there would be a long pleasant flight before the life ending impact.  Here, the slope was such that your body would have been grated away on the sandstone, leaving behind a long red swath that lead to a small splotch of remains a few hundred feet below.  There were a couple of spots in particular where the trail hugged some mid-sized boulders where there was no room for error.  I was already thinking ahead to what it would be like to run this section in the dark.  Not seeing below might be nice, as long as the fatigue didn’t make me any more prone to tripping.  “Just fall to the left”.

After a few miles, the trail led through more populated parts of town.  We crossed a few paved roads where we had to stop and wait briefly for a break in the cars.  And we even meandered along the golf course.  ALong this section, I got passed by a 100 miler and his pacer.  I knew the answer, but asked anyway - “what lap are you on?”

“Second” came the reply from his pacer.  This was Dallas, the lead 100 miler who was on the tail of the lead 50 miler right after the Antelope Canyon turn around.  He now had a lead of 10+ miles and more than 2 hours on me.  I had 50 miles to go, he had 40, but he was looking strong and I had no idea how many more runners were between us.  Off they went and I made a conscious effort not to try and chase.

Nearing the Page Rim aid station, I got caught by a female runner.  I turned to ask her what distance she was running when I saw the pink bib, so instead I asked what lap she was on, again already knowing the answer.  She also, was on her second lap.  This was deflating.  Not because she was a woman, but just being lapped by two runners.  There was no way I could make up that kind of time/distance.

I pulled into Page Rim and emptied out my shoes and socks for the final time.  The race was almost half over and only a bit over 10 hours.  That time was excellent time, but the SANDy parts earlier had taken their toll on my body and I didn’t think the second half would be as fast, despite the better running conditions.

There was a slight breeze, so I finally pulled on a shirt and set out on my 2nd lap, trying to calculate the sunset, and deciding to chance going around one more time without a light.

On my 2nd visit to Lake Powell aid, I discovered the most delicious cheese quesadillas.  I probably ate too many, but they were so good.  I did this same thing at Coldwater.  I made it back to Page Rim aid in about the same time as the previous lap.  That was promising, but it would be difficult to maintain.  This time, I grabbed my flashlight but kept the camera, hoping to catch some nice sunset colors.  Unfortunately, the sun was setting on the opposite side of the Page mesa, so the camera never came out again.

With the combination of distances, it was impossible to tell where I was in the field, though no more runners passed me.  Part way through my 3rd lap, I caught Dallas and his pacer.  This was a good sign, but he still had too big of a lead.  Part way through my 4th lap, he was only a few minutes behind, but coming past the deadly drop-off section again, I caught up to a female runner and her pacer.  I soon caught a glimpse of yellow underneath her long-sleeve top and realized it was Janessa, the gal who had lapped me earlier.  She was now in the lead with just a bit more than 1 lap to go.  I could tell she was really pushing herself and was quite nervous about Dallas catching back up.  Nearing the end of the loop, she stubbed her toe pretty bad and needed comforting from her pacer.

I slowed a bit on the 5th loop, but not too bad.  I was startin to calculate my potential finish time, which it typically not a good thing.  If it slips away, it feels like an additional defeat.  21 hours just wasn’t going to happen.  22 hours was attainable, if I could keep things up.  I knew I could walk much of the way and break 23, which was my main goal, so I took comfort in that and pressed on.

Lap 5 done, I asked the volunteers at Page Rim aid where I stood.  “3rd place”  What?  Holy cow!  Janessa was not far behind, but on her final loop.  I didn’t know where Dallas was, but unless he quit, there would be no way for me to catch him.  Apparently, there was no one else between us.  Inside the warm tent, I looked around at the food choices until my eyes settled on half of a chocolate covered crowler donut.  Before it was fully down my throat, I grabbed half of a large cinnamon bun and ran out, soon wishing I had taken the whole thing.

I started the final lap on a high note, but knew better than to celebrate.  I was tired, I couldn’t completely trust the 3rd place declaration, and I wanted to keep my time as low as possible to get a high UltraSignUp percentage.  This was a smart strategy, because about 6 miles through the last lap I passed another runner who said he was also on his last lap.  Drake was apparently the actual 3rd place guy at the time.  I’m sure he wasn’t thrilled when I passed him, but despite all the scenery and camaraderie, this was ultimately a race.  I never stopped looking back over those last 4 miles.

Eventually, I made it back to Page Rim for the final time and turned right to drop off the mesa.  The wind had really picked up over the last lap and now there were more consistent drops in the air.  As I trudged through the last few hundred feet of SAND, I saw the elevated walkway that led through the rocks and dumped out onto the finish line. 21:37:50 and 3rd place overall, 2nd male!  Not bad, given that UltraSignUp had me at 12th overall and 7th male.

The finish area was pretty subdued given that it was just past 3:30 AM.  I made my way to the blazing fire and a blanket was thrown over my shoulders.  I didn’t want to get too comfortable yet.  I went to the car, grabbed some clothes and a towel and made my way to the poopmobile.  This requires some explanation.  Matt has this trailer that’s equipped with compostable toilets,a wood fired hot tub and a SHOWER!  That’s what I wanted, to rinse away the grime and sand from the past 102 miles before I tried to get a few hours of sleep.

Man did that hot shower feel good.  After drying off and putting on some fresh, clean clothes, I decide to go straight to sleep.

I slowly woke up around 7:30 to the sound of a light, but steady rain.  I immediately thought of all the runners out on the course.  There were probably fewer than 20 left, but they would have been miserable if it had been raining since I had finished.

As it turns out, the drizzle that I finished in did turn into a light, steady rain, mixed with snow.  The temps stayed above freezing, but 36 and raining towards the end of a hundred miler is not pleasant.  I felt for everyone out there and knew some would drop due to the conditions.

When I did finally step out of the car, I was amazed.  The ground underneath my feet felt solid.  The rain soaked sand was firm!  Boy, that would have been nice in the first 40 miles.

I made my way over to the fire and chatted with Matt and a few others for a bit. Apparently, there was a steady stream of finishers after me, separated by 10 to 20 minutes, but still another 15 out on the course.  As tempting as it was to just hang out with everyone and cheer additional finishers, I still had to drive all the way back to Colorado and I knew the weather would make it even longer.

I grabbed my 2nd Place Male tomahawk and belt buckle, thanked Matt yet again and drove off.  I made a quick stop my the Page Rim and Lake Powell aid stations to gather my drop bags and headed towards home.

Wrap Up
If you’re looking for a fast or easy race, this isn’t it.  You have to deal with 35 of the first 40 miles being deep, soft, loose SAND, unless the weather gods take pity on you and it rains the previous day.  As a reward for dealing with the SAND, you run through 4 magnificent slot canyons.  As great as those were, my favorite part was still the Horseshoe Bend section - absolutely surreal.  Afterwards, you get to race for 60 miles along a pleasant and very runnable trail.  This final section, though somewhat repetitive, is also comforting since much of it is run in the dark.  For any who don’t like the repetitiveness at the end, the 50 miles option gives you all of the same terrain and views, with only a single finishing lap.

The race was superbly managed.  The start/finish line was a warm and welcoming place to hang out.  The volunteers were great.  The food at the aid stations was awesome.  As mentioned, in addition to all the usual and necessary snacks, they had a bunch of unique treats.

As a final note, DO NOT RUN THIS RACE WITHOUT A CAMERA!  Take your time to enjoy and photograph the sites, then race the last 60 miles.  This is absolutely a must-do 50 or 100 mile race!

Slideshow Video

Thursday, February 12, 2015

USATF Cross Country Championship - 2015

8 kilometers?  What the hell was I thinking?  It usually takes me 20 to 30 miles to start passing other runners.  What could I possibly do in 8 measly kilometers, other than suffer?

Right before the Coldwater Rumble, my friend and running partner asked me “you can run 5 miles at a 6 minute pace on grass, right?”  Maybe, if it was downhill, with a strong tailwind.  On a flat, paved course, I’d be lucky to run close to 6:30’s.  Despite my brutal honesty, I got hooked up with a bunch of other middle-aged ultra runners to represent the Flatirons Running store at the 2015 USA Track and Field Cross Country Championship – no pressure, right?

Let me start with my list of excuses:
  • I have never run a grass course before.
  • I haven’t run a serious race of this short distance in a couple of years.
  • I’ve been specifically focusing on ultras for more than a year.
  • This was going to be 2 weeks after a 100 miler (Coldwater Rumble).
  • This was early February, right after the eating frenzy and training slacking of the holidays.

What could go wrong?

The other team members were Bob Sweeney, Matt Van Thun, Wes Thurman, George Zack, & RL Smith.  And oh, did I mention that the they were seriously competitive?  They weren’t just out for a Saturday fun run.

With all of this as a background, I planned on recovering from Coldwater over the first week, with just a couple of slow jogs.  The beginning of the second week, I would run a few days of speed work – fartleks and tempo runs, before resting for a few days before the race.  Well, the first week went just fine and I felt like I was recovering pretty well.  Monday of week two comes along and I run some reasonably decent fartleks.  Monday night, I go for an easy 12 mile jog.  Tuesday comes along and I my legs and glutes (ass) are too sore to do any speed work, so I just go for a lunch time jog.  Wednesday, same thing.  Thursday, I’m feeling better, though not 100%, and it’s too close to race day to take a chance on pushing too hard.  Great!  In addition to all the other obstacles, I got in 1 decent training, and that drained me for a whole week.

Going into Saturday, this was the first race I can remember that I was not looking forward to.  I just wanted to get it over with, hang my head in shame, and get on with my ultras.

The good part was that this would be a loop course (4 2K loops) and Brenda and the girls were coming with me.  At best, they get to see me come across the finish line once in a while.  This time, they would get to see me start, run by a bunch of time, and finish.

I met the rest of the team just a bit before the start of the race.  After a brief warm-up, I took my place at the back of our group and soon enough the gun went off.  There were a couple of hundred runners and it took some effort to keep pace, not get run over, not get in anyone’s way, watch the obstacles (muddy spots, a ditch), etc.  Half way through the first lap, I wasn’t too far from a couple of the other team members.  I also came up on Corky, who I knew from the Belmar Run Club and who was running for the Runners Roost team.  Towards the end of the first lap, there was a small ditch to cross.  I mis-calculated my steps and wound up taking a hard step right into the bottom – no harm done, but very inefficient.

The first lap seemed to take forever.  Eventually, we crossed through the start/finish area.  8:03 – hey that’s not too bad.  I never looked down at my Garmin for the mileage pace, but my foggy brain did a slow calculation.  8+ minutes times 4 laps equals?  Eventually, I came up with 32+ minutes.  Wow, that’s not too bad at all.  But could I really keep it up?

Lap 2 went by even slower.  Did I forget to mention?  With all the pressure and nerves, I never had my typical morning visit to the port-o-potties.  Now it was finally starting to catch up with me.  I could hold it for another 20 minutes couldn’t I?  The ditch came along again and I planned a little better this time.  I avoided the very bottom and jumped across to the other side.  UGH!  My foot landed in the unexpectedly soft turf on the other side and jarred my body.

16:08 and lap 2 was over.  Only a few seconds slower than the first.  How long could I hold on?  Into lap 3, I was really starting to tire.  My mouth was dry and I could hardly breathe.  My stomach wasn’t helping any either.  If this was an ultra, I could just jog to the next aid station, pop into the port-o-potty, come back out and easily make up the time.  No aid stations on an 8K.  No stopping, at least not until you cross the finish line.  How far was it from the finish line to the nearest potties?  Could I make it?  I couldn’t afford to walk.  I’d have to run right through, and even then…

24:23 and lap 3 was now behind me.  I had slowed a bit, but not too bad.  Could I hold on?  It felt like I was slowing even more.  The only bright part was a pair of small rises, ¾ of the way through the loops.  They only climbed up 3 or 4 feet, but going up and down each one, my climbing and descending abilities shown through and I was able to pass other runners.
The final turn!  I pushed with everything I had left (which was very little indeed).  I “sprinted” down the final stretch though it felt like I was running in slooooooow motion.  Across the line in 32:26 and it was over!

I cursed the race, along with my teammates, my inadequate abdominal muscles, the soft turf, and everything else.  If my daughters weren’t right there with me, I would have done so out loud, but I kept the verbal carnage in my head.  Why had I done this?  God it was horrible.
32:26?  Hey, that wasn’t too bad.  It was better than I expected.  My breathing was starting to slow down a bit.  Bob was the only one of us that broke 30 minutes.  I was only 41 seconds behind Zack.  I slowed a bit on lap 3, but overall ran pretty consistently.  I did it!  Sure, I finished way lower in the pack than usual, but this was a national championship, with a very competitive field, and I was an ultra runner running an 8K.

As I quickly recuperated, my body felt better, and my mind felt better about my performance.  Despite all my whining, I am glad that I did it.  I’m happy with my performance and I’m thrilled to have been able to run with a bunch of really good guys, and to represent Flatirons Running.  I am also glad to have it all behind me so that I can now concentrate on ultras again, where there are aid station, with port-o-potties, lots of hills, and lots of time to slowly work my way up the ranks.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Coldwater Rumble - 2015

Coldwater - my first race in 2014, and my first ever DNF.  I ran strong for the first 35 miles or so, climbing up to 3rd place, but by mile 40, I dropped.  The rest of the year turned out pretty good, but I still had this demon on my back.  After accumulating way too many bibs in the first couple of years of racing, I have since taken to tossing them in the trash right after the event. The one exception is the 2014 Coldwater bib, which hangs prominently in my office - a constant reminder of the DNF that pushes me to go out for a run on sub-freezing days, when I would rather enjoy a hot cup of tea on the couch.

Needless to say, starting off the year at Coldwater again was a bit of a gamble. It's so soon after the holidays, with higher weight and less training. And this winter season, I managed to be sick twice with bad colds that put an additional hamper on my training. I hadn't been able to put in any long runs, or even high mileage weeks since the disappointing McDowell Mountain Frenzy in early December. So with all of that as a backdrop, I was not only going back to Coldwater, but I was doubling down for a full 100 miler instead of the 52 that kicked my ass last year. I really don't do anything half-assed. It's full-assed, or nothing!

This is only the second year of the 100 mile option at the Coldwater Rumble and it takes place in the Astrella Mountain Park, southwest of Phoenix. I arrived there about an hour before the start and things were just getting set up. I did a bit of pacing and huddling by the propane heater to ward off the 42 degree pre-dawn low. Then, with 90 seconds to go, I finally stripped off all the layers and took my place at the start in just a pair of shorts. There were a number of stares and comments on my shirtless choice and I was definitely cold, but I knew that wouldn't last too long. Soon enough, we were off.

As usual, there were lots of rabbits amongst the 72 runners but I tried to remain patient. It’s still tough, even after all these races, and I could have (and should have) started even slower.  I went out relatively easy and took the opportunity to chat with a variety of runners over the course of the first lap.  The temperature quickly climbed out of the 40’s and towards the projected highs in the upper 70’s.  Being shirtless no longer seemed so silly.  I was worried about the hot temperatures leading up to race day, but I hadn’t paid any attention to the wind forecast.  With a steady breeze and gusts in the 15 to 20 mile range, the heat was never a factor.  It was only really noticeable on the rare occasions when the terrain blocked the wind.  And, for laps 2 and 3, I employed my ice bandana, which kept me quite comfortable.

The wind was strong enough to be a factor at times.  It was great as a tailwind, going down the sandy wash near the top of the course.  On the way back, going uphill and into the wind, it wasn’t all that much fun.  This year, Aravaipa went with reversing loops like at Javalina.  I like it as you get to see everyone all day long and can get a good sense of the competition.  I thought it was pretty simple and straight forward, but apparently quite a number of runners wound up running loops in the wrong direction.  The other, not so great part about the wind was its unholy alliance with the jumping cholla cactus.  These things look so soft and cuddly from a few feet away, they’re sometimes referred to as teddy bear cholla.  Upon closer inspection, the soft “fur” is actually made up of long, sharp barbs.  And, while most cacti stay put and out of your way, the tops of these monsters break off easily and roll about, eventually making their way onto the trails, ensnaring unsuspecting runners and bikers.  I was smart enough to avoid these little bastards but at one point a wind gust blew a baseball sized chunk right onto the side of my foot.  OUCH!! &%^$&*^$&!!!!!  I had to use a rock to nock it off, as you do not want to grab those things with your bare hands.  Luckily, none of the barbs remained in my shoe or foot and I continued on even more cactus-aware than before.

Despite the wind, there were lots of flies around and I must have smelled really good.  Every time I ran by a pile of horse manure (horse shit, for the urbanites), the flies would take off and swarm after me.  The damn things were a serious nuisance.

The aid stations and volunteers were just as I’ve come to expect at an Aravaipa event – AWESOME!  My only complaint was that the water at the Penderson AS seemed to be a bit heavy on the warm hose flavor.  I just got to requesting mostly ice, as that was made from clean, filtered water.  A welcomed new surprise this time was that they switched to pitless dates.  I love dates during a race, but the first time I nearly broke my teeth on an unexpected pit at one of Aravaipa’s races was not a pleasant experience.  This time, I took full advantage of the sweet, cockroach-looking treats, leaving each aid station with a large handful.  Those, and the peanut butter filled pretzels were a staple during the day, in addition to the almond butter, Honey Stinger waffles and chews that I had brought.

By the way, the shoes that got impaled by the cholla were brand new.  Yes, I made the cardinal sin of racing in a brand new pair of shinny shoes that I had not even tested on my feet prior to race morning.  They were the same brand and size as the ones I had just retired (because my toes were protruding through the fronts), so I thought it would be OK.  It actually was just fine except for one small issue.  I hadn’t quite dialed in the lacing just right so the front of my feet moved around a bit.  By lap 4, I had to stop, lube up the outside of my big toes with liberal amounts of Vaseline and tighten up the laces.  The damage was pretty minimal; hot-spots from a bit of rubbing, but no real blisters.

I made the wise choice at the last minute to throw in a spare headlamp into my Coldwater drop-bag.  That was a good move since I wasn’t running quite as fast as I had hoped and needed to turn it on a couple of miles before I ended the 3rd loop and was able to retrieve my flashlight.  I had been running reasonably well, though slowing down a bit over time.  I felt pretty good (downright great, considering I had just run over 60 miles) but was really looking forward to having a pacer.  The one good thing that came out of the McDowell race in December was that I reconnected with Rick Valentine, who I had met during our first 100K at the Ultra Race of Champions in 2013 (in which he kicked my but at the end). Despite beating him in the last few miles at McDowell, he offered to pace me at Coldwater. Normally, I don't think of pacing as having that much of an effect on a race, but man was I thankful to have him on this one.  I was getting tired and the company was great.  He helped me at a couple of drainage crossings where I lost the markings and sped me through the aid stations, refilling my bottle and grabbing snacks. We both took full advantage of the cheese quesadillas they served at the Coldwater station.  On one pass through, I downed 5 big pieces, which was probably one too many, but they were sooooo good.

When Rick joined me at the start of lap 4, I finally donned a shirt, as the temperatures were falling and I worried that my fatigued body would not have enough excess fuel for warmth.  The temperatures eventually fell back into the 40’s but felt quite comfortable most of the time.  There were significant variations with the undulating terrain.  Low spots would fill with cold pockets of air that would hit you like a wall, while climbing back out on a rise we would be greeted with warm air, tempting me to take the shirt off again.

Rick knew many of the runners and exchanged greetings along the way.  He also kept tabs on our placement and kept me on my toes with the competition.  The last 30 miles, since I had passed him, I kept looking over my back expecting Trent Peelle to overtake me. The last time I had seen him was right after the lap 4. He was only about a mile and a half behind, Rick warned me he was a strong runner, and I was not setting any speed records at this point so I was anticipating him sneaking up and retaking 3rd place.  Luckily that didn’t happen, because it would have been totally demoralizing that late in the race.

Rick periodically texted pictures and updates to my wife, back in Colorado and surprisingly, she kept responding throughout the night.  What was she doing up so late?

Remember that jumping cholla I had an encounter with earlier in the race?  Somehow, it tracked us down.  I heard a sudden cry of pain and turned around to see Rick’s headlamp shining down on a chunk of cholla implanted in the side of his shin.  I would have laughed even more, had I not been similarly victimized 2 laps earlier.

I was originally shooting for 19 hours, then as that goal slipped away, I had my sights set on 20 hours, then 21.  Coming into Penderson for the last time, I thought we might just have a chance at 21, but as we headed towards the small pass before Coldwater, our slow pace dashed my hopes.  Coming into Coldwater, my hopes were raised again, though I knew it would be tough and close.  I pushed as much as I could in those last 4 miles.  I honestly wasn’t sure until we finally hit the paved road, a quarter mile from the finish.

As we headed down the field towards the finish line, I tore off my shirt and handed it to Rick, along with my hand-held and a bag of Doritos that I had been carrying with me for the last 30 miles. I crossed the line in 20:58:58!  I then asked to make sure that we had calculated things right and I was still in 3rd place.  Lo and behold, somehow I finished in 2nd!  Apparently, the 2nd place guy (Chris Lopez) had dropped at mile 80, though he had at least an hour’s lead on me. It was a total surprise, but a pleasant one.

UltraSignup had my target time at 19:22:55, which I didn’t even come close to, but I sure as heck beat the 20th place that they had me ranked at overall, 11th male, and 3rd age group.  In retrospect, I should have started out just a bit slower (something closer to 4 hours might have been more maintainable), but hindsight is always 20/20.  While I did slow down a good bit over the last 2 laps, I never fell apart or had any significant issues, just accumulated fatigue.  I also managed to stay on my feet the whole time, despite stumbling on a couple of rocks throughout the day.


The course was easier than many other hundred milers, but not as easy as Javalina.  There’s a bit more elevation gain on this one, plus there are no significant sections where you can just run comfortably and steadily.  The whole course is littered with these small drainages that break up any rhythm.  Maybe due to the early time of year and/or the deceptively easy appearance of the course, only 33 of the 72 starters finished.

This is not an overly exciting race.  The location is nice, but not spectacular.  The field is of moderate size and the trails pretty decent, but don’t offer enough of a chance to run consistently for long distances.  As with all of their races, I found the course to be very clearly marked, though a number of people went in the wrong direction or even got lost.  One guy said he went 8 miles off course; how the hell does that happen?  The race is very well managed, as are all of Aravaipa’s events and it’s one of the very few ultras so early in the year.