Friday, May 29, 2015

Grand Canyon 100 - 2015

After a decent performance at Collegiate Peaks, I felt ready to tackle my 5th 100 miler of the year - Ultra Adventures Grand Canyon Ultra.

The forecast kept changing dramatically over the 10 days prior to the race, though the last report looked pretty favorable, with temps in the 50’s and only a 20% chance of precipitation, so that’s what I packed for.

I spent the night at a truck stop in Green River, periodically awoken by the sounds of wind, heavy rain, and hail.  It all stopped by morning, but driving down I-70, all the typically dry drainages were flowing with muddy runoff.  As I started heading south, towards the North Rim, another front moved through and I found myself driving through an outright blizzard.  The roads were soon covered with a few inches of slush and the large, wet flakes greatly reduced visibility.  These conditions seemed to be spotty and luckily never got much worse.  By the time I made it to the Kaibab Lodge, the ground was covered with a couple of inches of snow, which continued to intermittently fall throughout the rest of the day.

The start area was a bit of a muddy mess with all the moisture.  I staked out a close by spot to car camp and found Matt to offer my services.  He put me in charge of directing incoming vehicles for parking, check-in and camping.  Poor Matt was not having a great day.  His little chiwawa stepped on the door lock button of his truck (in which Matt had left his keys).  A coat hanger, wooden shims, and lots of prying by the two of us was futile.  He eventually called AAA, and despite their impressive 1 hour estimate, it was a couple of hours by the time the guy showed up.  It took him about 30 seconds to unlock the truck, and then 20 minutes to do all the paperwork (that’s where all of the membership fees go).

Meanwhile, a couple of Park rangers showed up and had us move every single vehicle out of the start area due to concerns for the soft, saturated ground.  It made sense to not allow any additional vehicles, but moving the existing ones seemed rather pointless to me.

Being the parking attendant gave me the opportunity to meet lots of new runners, as well as seeing some old friends, but after standing around for 5+ hours in soaking feet and blowing snow, I cried uncle and had someone relieve me so that I could fuel up, dry off, and warm up.

The local forecast for race day seemed to be quite different from what I had gotten earlier.  The chance for precipitation was much higher and I was wishing I had packed even more stuff.  After a very cold pre-race briefing, I re-packed some of the drop bags, ate a dessert pizza and headed to my car for the night.  I was pretty comfortable until the wee hours of the morning, when my covers just weren’t holding in enough heat.  When my alarm finally went off at 5:00AM, I woke up to temperatures in the 20’s and 4+ fresh inches of snow on the car.  I seriously questioned my choice of starting out in shorts.

Thankfully, Matt sent Rick out ahead of the runners with an ATV to break trail in the fresh snow up to the second aid station.  In the high, shaded areas, the bottom of the ATV was scraping the snow.  Not that I would have been out front, but breaking through that would not have been fun for any runner starting out a 50 or 100 mile race.

After about a mile of climbing, we started a nice downhill that lasted almost until Stina.  I can’t tell you how much of a blast it was running this section.  The snow (compressed by the ATV wheels) was just perfect for cruising.  I chatted with various runners along the way, and all enjoyed the scenery but most didn’t like running in the snow.  This was one of my favorite bits of running though unfortunately, I probably went a bit faster than I should have because I was having such a good time.

Now, I’ve got an iron stomach, but typically watch what I eat during a race.  Sure, I indulge in copious amounts of Doritos, cheese quesadillas, birthday cake, etc., but hey, that’s normal, right?  Well, 5.5 miles into a 100 miler, in ankle deep snow, and subfreezing temperatures, I poked my head into the first aid station at Dry Park Lakes when lo and behold, they were taking chewy, sizzling strips of bacon off the griddle.  Even an almost-vegan like me couldn’t possibly resist.  I headed back out with two scalding strips slithering part way out of my mouth, and two more clutched in my greasy gloves.  What better way to battle the wintery conditions?  My mouth is watering just writing bout it.

As if Matt wasn’t having enough fun with his dog locking the truck, rangers dispersing our car camping area and weather induced course changes, when we finally arrived at the Stina aid station (one of the main ones, as the 100 milers would be hitting it 3 times), nothing was there, except a big tent with a whole lot of water (as if we didn’t have enough on the trail and in our shoes).  There were no drop bags, no supplies.  Apparently, one of the trucks broke down.  A few of the surrounding runners were in a bit of a tizzy, but I still had an unused nut butter in my pocket, smiled, and soldiered on.  When ginormous organizations like Competitor screws up a Rock n’ Roll event, I have no patience or sympathy.  When shit happens on an adventure race in remote venues, you gotta just roll with it.  15 miles into a 100 mile race is no time to get flustered and negative.  Everyone else is dealing with the same difficulties, so we’re all equally inconvenienced.  How one reacts is what can give you a competitive advantage, or run the rest of the day.
So, on I went towards Stina Point, with a positive attitude (and doubly glad I had eaten all that bacon) until we hit the mud - what the …, son of a …., #(*&^%**&^%^&&^.  My shoes, socks and feet were already sloshing around after all the snow running, but this was the sticky, slick, nasty kind of mud that you slide around on when going up or down hill, and that you lose your shoes in on the flats.  My positive attitude was quickly dissipating.

Luckily, the mud sections were relatively short and the magnificent views of the Canyon that greeted us at the turn-a-round made it all worth while.  The other nice part about this out-and-back was getting to see more runners than just the few that were going the same pace as me.  Even though it was so early on, I couldn’t help but count the number of 100 milers ahead of me (surprisingly only 5).  I was a little curious as to not having seen Katrin since the Squaw Canyon aid station.  Part way back, I saw her up ahead.  I could tell something was up and instead of the typical “looking good, great job, etc.” type of crap, I asked her how she was doing.  I was a bit worried to hear that she had taken a bad fall and probably bruised a rib.  As it turned out, she made it to the point, and then dropped when she returned to the Stina aid station - bummer, but a smart decision, especially from someone stubborn enough to have run the last 75 miles of a 100 miler on a severely sprained ankle.

Second time at Stina, they had some gels and a bag full of trail mix, but not much more, and no drop bags.  I stowed a gel for later (yuck) and grabbed a handful of trail mix as I left.  The course continued down the road for a couple of miles and I almost missed the left turn onto the trail.  It was marked about as well as it could be, but I had my head down, stuffing my jacket away - can’t blame anyone for my own stupidity.

From here, the course followed a really nice single track trail for over 20 miles - the kind of stuff that trail running is all about.  The ground was dry, the profile was gently rolling, and there were intermittent views of the Canyon.  What more could anyone ask for?  Even the weather was perfect.  Clouds rolled in and out, but never dropped more than a few, barely perceptible sprinkles.

I was happy to finally make it to North Timp and access a drop bag again.  I switched to lighter gloves, picked up some portable snacks, and dropped off my shirt (though I did keep the light jacket stuffed in the waistband of my shorts, just in case).  I had already gotten lots of friendly flak for wearing a shirt this far.  Now I felt light and free, enjoying the perfect running temperature.

To the weary mind and body of an ultra runner, pronouncing Parisawampitts is just too much of a challenge, so it took on slight deviation to Paris Hilton’s Armpits.  Most of the innocent bystanders thought I was just slurring my speech in between stuffing my face full of aid station food, but a few found humor in it.

The stretch from Paris Hilton’s Armpits to Crazy Jug was noted as having some “tough scrambling sections”.  I was expecting rock scrambling type of stuff, but it turned out to be much more brutal - a series of extremely steep descents and climbs.  On the way back, an oncoming runner asked me about the “game trails”.  I laughed.  “Are you kidding me?  Game trails are easy.  Humans are the only animals stupid enough to take this route.”

The descents were steep and loose.  The climbs were steep and loose.  The “trail” only got looser as more runners went through.  Sometimes I try to imagine the looks on Matt and Rick’s faces as they’re coming up with these courses.  I see a little devil on one shoulder saying “yes, let’s make it tough” and then another devil on the other shoulder chiming in “no, it’s not tough enough, make it tougher.”  Where is the angel in all of this?

One of the bright spots was that the route was very clearly marked - probably because Rick was tired of carrying all of those flags up and down these dog-awful slopes.  I was lucky to be “running” (falling down and crawling up) this stuff in full daylight.  I felt for the poor souls who would have to negotiate this stuff in the dark.

The other thing that kept me moving through this section was Ozzy Osbourne - “running off the trails, onto Crazy Jug” (are you singin’ it with me?).  The volume was cranked way up in my head for the full 5.5 miles, each way.  It seemed so obvious, even though I was never a huge Ozzy fan, but when I tried to relay it to the volunteers and spectators at the aid station, they gave me that “oh, you poor dumb, bastard, you’ve really lost it now” look.

After Crazy Jug, we had an out-and-back section to Monument Point.  This was my first chance to gauge my placement since Stina Point.  A couple of miles out from the end, I came up on the leader, and very shortly after him, I came upon Sam Reed and another guy.  I was expecting Sam to win this thing, so was a little surprised to see him comfortably hanging back.  I was quite pleased when Garrett Froelich and I came upon the hole punch without seeing any additional runners.  Him and I had been exchanging positions for the past 15+ miles.  We hit the turn-a-around pretty close together and thereafter, I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting him to overtake me again, but luckily he didn’t.

I was pretty happy to be in 4th place at the halfway point, and only an hour behind the three leaders, all bunched up.  I was running a pretty smart race and figured I had a decent chance to catch someone.

The return was nice because the out and back format allowed a great opportunity to see all the other runners for a good 10 miles.

By Paris Hilton’s Armpits, I was still about an hour behind the 3 leaders - hey, at least I wasn’t losing any ground.  6.5 miles later, at Fence Point, I was still an hour behind the leader, but number 2 was only 40 minutes ahead and number 3 was down to 25 minutes.  Holy cow, I knew I had been running well, but this was quite unexpected.  All of a sudden, I was in real contention for the podium.  Despite knowing better, I started counting the chickens, though the eggs had hardly been laid.  I had visions of not just 3rd place, but an easy 2nd place.  It was all right there within my grasp.  Unfortunately, by the time I reached North Timp, their leads had all increased, and I was getting tired.

North Timp to Stina seemed to take forever.  I was pretty slow on the uphills, and even though I still had some leg speed for the descents, there weren't enough of those to make a difference.  The dry trails changed back to spotty mud and increasing snow as I climbed up towards Squaw Canyon.  I wasn’t having the strong finish I had hoped for, but my overall timing was still decent, so I tried to stay positive.

The temperature must have really dropped as everything was covered with sparkling ice crystals and much of the mud was frozen solid.  The stars were spectacular, and kept me company on these lonely miles, with no human contact, other than at the aid stations.  A pacer would have been quite nice, but oh well, I this is what I had signed up for.

I was a bit disoriented and even though I knew the final mile was downhill, wasn’t quite clear on where I was, until I saw the lights from the campground near the finish.  The course was about 5 miles short by my GPS, but I was darn happy to be done.  I was 4th overall and finished in 20:40, much better than the 7th placing and 25+ hours that UltraSignup predicted for me.  It wasn’t quite a perfect race, as I didn’t finish nearly as strong as I would have liked, but my actual pace/mile was within 1 second of what I had predicted/hoped for on my spreadsheet.  That, in itself, was a pretty nice accomplishment.  I’m certainly not the best runner out there, but I’m probably the best at estimating my performance (at least when things go reasonably well).  I missed the podium by about 30 minutes, and that was probably a good thing, as I was getting way too cocky when I had a few good miles and temporarily made up time on the leaders.

This was another awesome Ultra Adventures race and Matt and his crew did an amazing job, especially given the weather and other unforeseen circumstances.  I had a blast, and as the 4th UA 100 in as many months, each one has been such a unique experience.  Who would have thought to expect snow and wintery conditions in Arizona in the middle of May?  The volunteers were spectacular and the aid station food was really, really good.  The course was lots of fun.  The snowy downhill was an absolute blast and the single track along the rim was classic trail running.  Views of one of the seven natural wonders of the world were icing on the cake.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Collegiate Peaks 50M - 2015

After 2 disappointing races in a row (Zion 100 and Cheyenne Mountain 50K), I was more than a little worried heading into Collegiate Peaks.  I really needed a good performance.  I wanted to beat last year’s time, hopefully break 8:30, and try to run negative splits.

The night before the race, I got very little sleep (much like the previous year) and finally got up at about 2:45.  I made it into Buena Vista just as they were starting to set up.  This at least gave me a good parking space near the start line and convenient for accessing my stuff at the end of the first loop.

I saw Hawaiian Shirt Ray before the start and as we exchanged pleasantries, he let me know that he had forgotten to bring any rain gear.  I was happy to find a disposable poncho after fishing around in the back of my car and gladly took it, though I never found out if he got caught in any weather.

I also met up with Steve Bennett, my Shaklee supplier, right at the start line and we posed for a quick picture.

We were all ready to go but unsure if someone had called out “start” when all of a sudden, a small cannon went off with a very full bang.  There was no doubt about that, so we all took off, 25 and 50 milers together.

Pretty soon, I bumped into Eric Hubbard, from Evergreen, who I had run with at the McDowell race in Arizona back in December.  We chatted for a few miles, but then he pushed on and I fell back into a comfortable pace.  I was bound and determined to run a smart race, so up to the first aid station, I was mainly being passed as we all settled into our appropriate spots.

After the first aid, there weren’t too many position changes, other than just shifting back and forth with the terrain.  I was being very conservative on the uphills, but was flying on the descents, thereby see-sawing with others who were maintaining a more consistent pace, yet an inconsistent effort (at least in my view).

After the second aid station, I slowly started to pass a few runners.  I didn’t think I was doing as well as last year on the climbs, but didn’t pay any attention to my watch.  I was going strictly by feel.  I was quite glad to hit the final summit as I was looking forward to a fast, yet somewhat relaxing descent.  I passed a few more runners in the upper section where it was steeper and I wasn’t holding back.  By the time we reached the flatter section of the old Midland Railroad bed, I settled in to a more manageable pace as we were not yet half way done.

With about 3 miles to go to the turn-a-round at the Start/Finish, I came across the first returning runner.  Up until this point, it was impossible to tell who was running 25 or 50 miles and I didn’t much care, but now I started counting.  By the time I got down to the bottom, I had counted 11 runners ahead of me.  I didn’t know how many had started, but since I had come in 10th last year, I figured this was a pretty good spot to be in at the halfway point.  I also looked down at my watch for the first time and was pretty pleased with the 4:13 time for the first half.  I had hoped for something in the 4:00 to 4:15 range and was still feeling pretty good.

After a quick re-fueling stop by my car, I headed back out for the second half.  With my good time and mostly clear skies, I decided to take a bit of a chance and went out without my rain jacket.  I hoped that even if it did rain, it would pass through pretty quickly and I wouldn’t suffer too much.

Heading back up the railroad grade is slow, but still runnable.  I kept a steady pace, but tried not to overdo it as the sun was blazing down and there were still over 20 miles to go.  I passed Eric and another guy pretty early on, but the next runner that I could see up ahead was a decent way off and seemed to be increasing his lead as I struggled up the climb.

Once at the top, I was pleased to see that they had brought out the soda (which was missing from the aid station in the first half).  I re-energized with some Coke, grabbed some snacks and stretched my legs out on the long downhill, catching that elusive runner and another one before the next aid station.

It was pretty lonely out there at this point.  No more oncoming runners, and no one up ahead of me that I could catch.  The clouds moved in and cooled things down, but only let loose a few intermittent drops - perfect running weather.

The last runner that I had passed was looking pretty strong and was within sight behind me for quite a few miles.  I would stretch the lead on the downhills and he would shorten it on the climbs.  I really feared that he would catch up and that would have been a bit demoralizing.

On this second half, I looked at my watch quite a bit, especially in the last 10 miles or so.  I kept calculating and recalculating, trying to figure out what kind of finish time I should expect.  I was moving pretty slowly up the climbs, but was still able to run some sub-8 minute miles on the descents.

Breaking 8:30 was starting to look out of reach as I headed into the last aid station.  Fortunately, their little mileage sign was off, reading 44.95, whereas my GPS said I was only at 44.  Though the halfway mileage spot on, I just assumed that my GPS was now off (maybe it couldn’t keep up with those fast downhill miles), so I was elated.  Having a whole mile less would give me a really good shot at breaking 8:30.

As the miles ticked off and I neared the road, I caught a glimpse of another runner ahead.  This was just the push that I needed.  He was a tough one to catch and it took me a while, but just as we got on to the asphalt, I was able to drop him.  I wasn’t quite sure of the remaining distance, but this last guy was moving pretty well so I kept pushing the pace not wanting him to catch back up.

As I crested the little hill after we crossed the river, I saw yet another runner way off in the distance.  I didn’t think I would have enough distance left to catch him, but I pushed on.  It turned out that I was able to average a 7:30 pace on these last 3 miles - not bad for the end of a 50 miler.

As he made the second to last turn up ahead, I thought all was lost as turned back he saw me.  I figured he would make a final push also and would be too difficult to match, but he had nothing left and I was able to pass in the final half mile, encouraging him on to a strong finish.

There, in the distance, was yet another runner.  It seemed like everyone was bunched up at the end.  I pushed with everything I had, but soon realized that it was futile.  I just pushed on to make sure that I broke my goal, and I did.  I crossed the line in just over 8:28.  16 minutes better than last year, 2 minutes ahead of my goal, and only 2 minutes off of a negative split (4:13 and 4:15).  And I finished 6th overall.

Those last few miles really made the difference between a decent race and a great one.  I would definitely not have done as well had it not been for those last couple of runners teasing me on.  Though it also made for one of the toughest ultra finishes I’ve had to date.

Cheyenne Mountain 50K - 2015

This was going to be the first real test race that I could compare to the previous year in a while, though I went into it without serious expectations, other than to improve.

The forecast was pretty darn good, 60’s and partly cloudy.

I purposely taped over the average pace reading on my Garmin so that I wouldn’t worry about my pace too early on.  I didn’t even look down at the time until close to the halfway point.  The plan was to run strictly by feel.  I could have gone even a bit slower early on, but just went with the flow of the surrounding runners.  By the time we dropped off the highpoint of the first north loop, I was settled in to my spot, yet slowly caught other runners on the fun downhill.  From here on, I wasn’t passed by a single person for the whole mid-half of the race.

The first south loop went reasonably well, still running by feel.  I was a bit worried though when we passed the site of usual aid station location.  It had been in this spot each of the years I ran the race, from its inception and this time, there was nothing.  I knew I could stretch the contents of my bottle for the full loop, but it would be that much harder on the second time around as the temperature and the sun rose.  Luckily, the aid station had just been moved to the split into the lollypop portion.  This made more sense, but everyone seemed to be surprised.

As I finally finished off the first 25K, I came through the start/finish area and checked my time.  Expecting something in the 2:15 to 2:30 range, I was a bit disappointed to look down and see 2:38.  My chances of beating last year’s time were slipping away, but I still felt pretty decent.  Had I just gone out too conservatively?  Could I still make up that much time in the remaining mileage?

As the climb from the start area started, things changed rapidly.  I was noticeably slower than I had been the first time around.  I was also breathing much harder than I should have been.  Things didn’t improve as I crested the loop, even though I did manage to pass a few runners.  The downhill that I had enjoyed so much a couple of hours earlier was now killing me.  My sides were on the verge of cramping and I had to slow down to a jog instead of flying down like I usually can.  The one last positive note was passing a Runners Roost team member on the way down (am I a lousy sport, or just overly competitive?).

As I headed out on the final loop I got passed.  As the loop wore on, I wore down even more and got passed by more runners.  I was really feeling off now.  My neck and shoulders were tight and aching.  I haven’t had issues with a handheld on 100 milers, and here I was only 20+ miles in and feeling it.  Additionally, my head was feeling all clogged up, like I was under water.  And to add to my misery, I was now experiencing some serious diaper rash, having gone with my lighter shorts.  You would have thought I would have learned my lesson at Zion, but I thought a short 50K wouldn’t present any problems.

I struggled through the downhill to the finish and was quite pleased to see Brenda and the girls there.  My time was almost 50 minutes slower than 2014, but I rarely get to run across the line with my daughters, so that part was fun.

I have no idea what went wrong (other than the stupid shorts).  I wasn’t sick before the race, and I didn’t develop any symptoms afterwards.  My fueling and hydration were good enough and I felt like I had recovered reasonably well from the Zion 100 2 weeks earlier.  I just had a really, really off day.  This makes 2 disappointing races in a row.  WIth only a week till the Collegiate Peaks 50 miler, all I can do is hope that things go differently.