Thursday, October 1, 2015

Run Rabbit Run 2015

My second time at Run Rabbit Run and many of my friends were teasing me for not going out as a hare.  Though I wasn’t using a pacer or poles, there are two major factors for going out with the tortoises; I hate late starts (tortoises start at 8 AM and hares start at noon), and I had absolutely no chance of finishing in the top 7 hares, though I did have a shot at finishing in the top 4 tortoises.  I had a couple of friends in the hares, but most were running in the tortoise division, like me.

Things were a bit questionable till the last minute.  After a 7 mile trail race Wednesday night, I rolled out of bed Thursday morning limping badly due to pain on the outside of my left foot.  Though it eased up quite a bit as I loosened it up throughout the day, it never did feel quite normal.  On top of that, I went to sleep Thursday night with slight dizziness, a headache (which I almost never get) and a mild fever.  By Friday morning, all those symptoms were gone, but my foot was still aching.

The forecast called for a chance of rain overnight, dwindling down to zero by start time.  Unfortunately, as some of you may have realized, forecasting weather in the mountains is less than perfect.  On the 50’ walk from my overnight accommodations (back of the car) to the event tent (where we were supposed to re-check-in), the rain was falling lightly, but steadily.  WIth less than 30 minutes to go, there were breaks in the clouds and I was hopeful that the forecast wasn’t off by too much, since I packed both of my rain jackets in drop bags that had already been taken away.

With just a few minutes to go, the rain stopped, I made my way to the start line, and soon we were off.  The race starts with a couple of hundred feet of downhill/flattish terrain, then climbs relentlessly for the next 4.5 miles, gaining 3,500’.  The climb follows the gondola, which allows spectators to ride up and cheer the runners along the way.  At the top of the gondola, halfway up the climb, lots of families and spectators were gathered for a final send-off.

Most runners were taking a relatively smart, slow approach to the climb, but quite a few were pulling ahead or passing by with gasping breaths.  Part way up, an intermittent light rain started again, though it was almost unnoticeable on my sweat-soaked shirt.  A bit further and the drizzle turned to sleet and then ceased altogether.  We were starting to climb up above the clouds and the views opened up behind us.  With the sun peaking through, the valley below was spotted with white clouds and various shades of fall colors - wish I had brought a camera.

I made it up to the top of Mt Werner, and the first aid station, within a minute of my goal time, filled up on water and supplies and continued on.  The single-track trail between Mt Werner and Long Lake is one of my favorite sections.  More views opened up to the south as we ran along a rolling trail through snow covered trees.  Up here, it had snowed enough to dust the vegetation with a frosty coating.

A couple of more guys passed me by but before getting to Long Lake, I started to pass others on the descent.  The trail was wet and muddy in places from the recent moisture, but I managed to keep my feet mostly dry.  The turn-off to Long Lake was very well marked and if anyone went the wrong way, I have no pitty for them.  Runners were already coming back down the trail but I didn’t bother counting as I knew there were dozens.

I made it to the aid station and my first drop bag.  Though it was still a little chilly, I left my shirt and gloves, filled up my bottle, grabbed some more snacks and headed back down the trail.  Though my hands were a bit cold at first, the temperature quickly rose as the sun climbed up in the sky and we descended to lower elevations.  Now that everyone had settled into a pace, with some runners feeling the effects of the climb, I took advantage of the long downhill and passed more runners.  As we got lower down, there were also more hikers on the trail, but all were very courteous and stepped aside as soon as they saw the half naked guy come recklessly tumbling down the hill.  Some had words of encouragement, which added to the positive energy.

By the time we got down to Fish Creek Falls, there were lots of hikers and race spectators around.  Then a quick uphill to the parking area and out onto the long, paved downhill into town.  I was feeling pretty good and took full advantage of this fast part of the course, clocking a couple of sub-8 minute miles, without much effort.

Soon enough, we were down in the center of town.  It’s kind of weird to be running out in the wilderness, then come down into a pretty built-up downtown, and have to cross a busy, 4-lane road.  At least this year, I managed to time it just right and didn’t have to wait for the light at all.  This is not a street you can jay-run through easily.

A quick jaunt on the bike path, and onto Olympian Hall - the most active aid station of the race, as it’s easily accessible, and everyone passes through twice.  There were lots of cheering spectators, including quite a few familiar faces.  I didn’t know it at the time, but the fast descent put me almost 10 minutes ahead of my goal time.  I refilled and reloaded, then headed back out.

We ran past the bottom of the ski jumps and started the ascent.  Though this climb is almost ⅓ of Mt Werner, being later in the day, and exposed to the rising sun, it’s not insignificant.  The field was pretty spread out by now, but I managed to pass a few more runners as we went past the water stop and up the “lane of pain”.  New runners were a bit confused as the water stop is a couple of miles short of where it’s shown on the maps and profile (this is something that really should be fixed).  The “top” rolls along for quite a while before the road ends into the single-track and the loop portion of the lollipop.  As I started on the trail, I heard a couple of elk beugeling off in the distance - autumn in the Rockies.

The trail descending into Cow Creek is a blast - steep enough to be fun, yet easily runnable.  On a pretty smooth, mellow section, I instantly landed face down in the loose dirt as I heard a loud pop.  Oh my god, I’ve just been shot!  Probably some toothless, trailrunner-hating redneck hiding in the woods, picking us off, one by one.  I slowly looked around my body and noticed the distinct absence of a pool of blood.  I hadn’t been shot!  What was it then?  Did I pop a joint?  My hip?  My head?  I wiggled my extremities.  Nope, everything moved fine.  As I slowly lifted my head, mere inches in front of me, I saw it - a bright, orange Dorito chip laying in the middle of the trial.  As most who have seen me running an ultra know, I like to fuel my efforts with Doritos.  A bag of which I conveniently pack into the waistband of my shorts in between aid stations.  Because of the altitude, the bag that I currently had with me was rather bloated with air.  Apparently, when I tripped over my own feet and unexpectedly hit the ground, I popped the bag.  Luckily, only a couple of the tasty chips had escaped, and though they were covered in trail dust and had to be discarded, the rest were salvaged and used to fuel the remaining descent.

The Cow Creek aid station had been moved a few hundred feet to accommodate a reconstruction of the trailhead.  I was greeted with some young boys who yelled out my number and helped me get my drop bag.  There were a number of familiar, friendly faces who encouraged me along, as well as helping me with water and supplies.  Knowing the next section would be long and hot, I smartly planned on taking a second water bottle.  I was a bit disappointed to learn that there was no ice to load them with, but off I went.

I definitely felt better than last year and was able to run a good portion of the dirt road heading out of the aid station, passing a number of runners who were starting to feel the effects of mileage and heat.  The temperature wasn’t too bad (probably in the mid 60’s), but with the blazing sun, it was still a bit warmer than I would have liked.

Once we got back onto the trail, we were mostly in the shade so it didn’t feel too bad.  This long climb is pretty rolling so there are lots of opportunities to run.  Early on, I was able to catch and pass a few runners, then I didn’t see anyone until I got to the very top.  Though I felt like I was moving reasonably well, I started to fall a bit behind my goal times here.

It seemed to take forever, but I finally reached the top of the climb, and onto the out-and-back portion that lead back to Olympian Hall.  This is the first chance to see some of the Hares and the two-way traffic was a lively change from the previous solitude.  I even got to see a couple of friends, including Steve Chaffee and Katrin Silva.

Back at Olympian, I was a little disappointed that they didn’t have the awesome breakfast burritos they had last year - apparently, I came through just a bit too early.  This is where I made a costly mistake.  I wound up taking a piece of a Nutella wrap, along with two cookies, which turned out to be one cookie too many.  That second cookie would unbalance my stomach for the next 4 hours.  I didn’t throw up or anything like that, but my stomach was off just enough that it affected my hydration, fueling, and pace for hours.  That cookie easily cost me 15 minutes, possibly 30!

Anyway, out of Olympian I went to lots of cheers from strangers and friends.  I made it to the stop light just as it turned red for cross traffic and flew across before the left turns came through, even though I didn’t have a green light - oops.  I was on a roll, and I didn’t get hit.  What can I say, growing up in New York, only chumps waited for green lights.

Much like last year, the climb back up to Fish Creek Falls was slow and unpleasant.  Flying down a paved road at a sub 8 minute pace is great.  Grinding up at almost half that speed feels crappy, especially knowing that I wasn’t even half way through the race.

The extra thinking time along the side of the road gave me the opportunity to contemplate the course a bit more.  The halfway point is the second time at Long Lake, approximately 53 miles, yet by that point, you’ve done almost ¾ of the climbing.  That’s a good part of what wears you out on this course.  At Leadville, when you hit Winfield, it really feels like you’re half way through, even though timewise you may not be.  Part of that may be the out and back nature of the course.  It always feels good to me to be turning around, towards the finish line.  Here, at RRR, by the time you hit the halfway mileage point, it feels like you’re way further along, but unfortunately, you’re not.  It might be the heavy climbing in the first half, or the later start, or the geometry of the course, but psychologically it‘s just tougher.

I guess I didn’t do as bad on the road as it felt.  I was actually faster than last year and my goal time, and I only got passed by two guys, who I caught back up to on the trail.  One of those guys was Shawn, who came in a close second at last year’s Bear Chase 100K.

Unfortunately, the time I had gained on the road, I lost again on the trail, climbing back up to Long Lake.  The sun was slowly setting and though I didn’t remember any of my goal times, I knew that last year I reached the aid station a bit after it got dark.  I was hoping to be ahead of that time.  As it turns out, I was about 14 minutes ahead, but still had to put a shirt on and turn on my headlamp before I arrived.  The temperature actually dropped pretty quickly.  Within minutes, I went from shirtless to a long sleeved shirt, with the sleeves stretched out to cover my freezing fingers.

I was quite happy to reach Long Lake.  This was my main gear stash and I needed warmer clothes.  I also enjoyed a very hot fire while I donned my UD pack and drained 2 full cups of ramen.  Leaving Long Lake, there were a about half a dozen of us that were within sight of each other and we traded positions a bit on the way to Summit Lake.  I mostly lost ground on the uphills, and regained it on the downhills where I could outrun the other guys.

Though it was still relatively early, this section is the highpoint of the course and the temperature in some of the cold pockets was pretty low.  Even with two shirts, a thin jacket, hat, and gloves (with hand warmers inside), I was still cold at times and would have been in pretty serious trouble if I couldn't keep moving.  I knew that it would be even colder on the way back and made up my mind that I would put tights on at Spring Creek.

With the high elevation and cold, clear air, the stars were magnificent.  I wished I was laying in a warm sleeping bag, staring up at the night sky, but all I could do was periodically glance up as I hiked the uphills.

A group of us left Summit Lake and stuck together for a while.  We all commented on the beautiful quarter moon, which turned into a fiery shade of orange as it neared the horizon.  After the first couple of miles, the downhill grade steepened a bit and I put a little bit of distance on the others.  There are many campers off on either side of the road on this long descent, and at this hour, many were still gathered around their fires.  While I enjoyed the running, I was also getting a bit tired and wished I was huddled around one of those fires with my family, getting ready to crawl into a warm sleeping bag, instead of facing another 10 hours on my feet.

Dry lake was pretty busy, like last year.  Lots of crews, pacers, family, etc.  I tried to refuel pretty quickly and move on.  The next 4.5 miles were rolling downhill towards the last low-point of the race and the temperature increased slightly going down.  Last year, I had run into the lead Tortoises just after Dry Lake, but this time, I was half way down, which gave me a mental boost.

Upon making it to the Spring Creek Pond aid station, I showed off my physical prowess by doing a faceplant on the wooden ramp.  I had to convince all the concerned volunteers and spectators that I was not nearly as inept as I appeared.

I had assumed that I would have an interesting time changing into my tights here and even packed a towel to wrap around me in an attempt to maintain some modesty.  As it turned out, there was a large, yet totally empty, warming tent for my personal use.  I was able to change quite comfortably.  In addition to the tights, I swapped my outer long-sleeve for a thicker one, got warmer gloves, and a fresh pair of handwarmers.  The stop took a little longer than I would have liked, but I knew it would pay off as the night got colder.

I had counted off how many runners were ahead of me, but with my weary mind and the confusion at the aid station, I really wasn’t sure once I left.  I tried to run as much as I could on the way back up to Dry Lake.  I came across a runner and his pacer and overheard their story of how he had fallen apart and then totally come back from the dead.  He was talking about breaking 24 hours, which would have meant only 6 ½ hours for the final 30 miles from Dry Lake.  I did a lot of slow calculating in my tired head and felt that it was possible, but unlikely.  I knew the climb back up to Summit would be long and slow, but this guys gave me some hope.  I was running pretty even with him so if he could do it, why not me?

I was a little disappointed on my second visit to Dry Lake.  I was really in the mood for a breakfast burrito, and though they had eggs and bacon, all of their tortillas were already cut into quarters for some reason so I couldn’t get one to go.  I took some other snacks, downed another bottle of Coke and headed off.  Climbing back up this road is so much worse than coming down.  My pace was excruciatingly slow, and all of those cheerful fires were now extinguished as all sensible campers had retired to the warmth of their tents hours ago.  The only solace was the two way traffic.  There were many runners still coming down the road (though rather slowly at this point), so I wasn’t really alone for any extent.  I thought I was moving at a reasonable pace, but I lost a good amount of time on this climb.  I was so happy to finally see the Summit Lake aid station off in the distance.  Rachael StClaire was trying to warm herself up inside, but unfortunately wasn’t able to continue on due to the cold.  I didn’t linger too long.  I wanted to be done and the only way to do that would be to keep going.

This section from Summit back to Long is definitely my least favorite.  I was well prepared for the cold, but the solitude on this section, paired with the mounting fatigue got to me again, as it had last year.  I started out OK, but slowed down as I went along this interminable trail.  It probably felt like it took forever because it pretty much did.  I apparently lost close to an hour on this section alone.  I kept hoping I was still ahead of last year’s time but when I finally got to the trail junction, the sky was lightening, just as it had last year.

I was caught by a hare and as we ran together for a bit, we both cursed at how far off Long Lake still was.  Eventually I made it.  I warmed up a bit by the fire as I drained a few cups of ramen and another Coke.  I didn’t ask what place I was in, but the volunteers told me that a tortoise had left just before I arrived, and I saw another one taking off a minute ahead of me.  This news, along with the brightening sky, and the nearing finish line gave me a little boost.

It’s a slight, gently rolling climb out of Long Lake and it took me a few miles to catch up to the first runner.  Shortly thereafter, the 50 milers started coming at us.  Everyone was very courteous and encouraging, but I soon got tired of exchanging pleasantries.  I just wanted to be done.  I did come across another friend, Susan Chaffee, whose husband was running the 100.  I’m surprised that she recognized me, because all the runners were looking like a continuous blur at that point.

I saw another tortoise up ahead, but it took me a long time to actually catch him.  I only took occasional sips from my bottle since Long Lake, just enough to moisten my mouth, but for some reason, I had to keep pulling over to pee every ten minutes.  I’m not sure what was going on, as the temperature was actually rising, so it wasn’t my body constricting due to cold like it sometimes does.

When I finally caught the guy, he told me that I was now in 4th place!  I was happy because that meant $100 in my pocket if I could keep it up.  The oncoming runners kept telling us that we were so close to the Mt Werner aid station, but man it seemed to take forever.  Their version of close was not what we were expecting.  I kept recalculating everything in my head and thought that if I could get to Mt Werner in 24 hours, I should be able to run the last 6+ miles in less than 1 hour, breaking 25 hours and last years time.  Though it wasn’t the goal I had set out for, along with $100, it would still be good.

Unfortunately, we just kept going and going, and the minutes just kept ticking by.  When we finally reached the aid station, the clock was 24:06.  I downed a quick bottle of Coke and moved through pretty quickly, but I lost hope of breaking 25 hours.  My first mile, though downhill, was barely under 10 minutes.  As I loosened up a bit, I ran the next two in under 9 minutes, but still not great.  Soon, I saw another runner up ahead - Scott.  He apparently knew of me, as he lives about 15 minutes away from Manitou, in Cascade.  He gave me a quick high-five and some encouraging words as I went by.  WIth the added energy, I kept recalculating my time and came up with the crazy notion that I had a chance to break the 25 hour mark, so I stepped on the accelerator.  I went from an 8:41 mile to a 7:49, then a 7:34, then a final, all out sprint at 6:21.  Sure, it was gravity assisted, but after 105 miles, that’s still some pretty fast turn over to keep me upright.  I felt like my lungs would explode and my legs would buckle out from under me as I lunged towards the finish line...24:59:59!  That’s what my Garmin said, but unfortunately, the “official” time was 25:00:00.  Son of a….

Oh well, 12 minutes off of last year’s time, under 25 hours (according to my watch), 3rd place in the tortoise division, and a $100 prize.  Can’t complain too much.

Don’t know if I’ll come back again next year.  Of course, that’s what I said right after last year’s race.  My body fared pretty well.  I had a slightly bruised pinky toe, but no blisters.  My legs would have felt reasonably good had it not been for the crazy sprint in the final miles.  I was actually pretty sore for the next 1 ½ days, which is not typical for me.