Monday, August 14, 2017

Leadville 2016

5 weeks before Leadville, I hit the turnaround of the Silver Rush making plans for my non-Leadville summer.

I didn't get in the lottery back in January, and after a short period of pissed off disappointment, I decided I would forgo one of my favorite races (Ultra Adventures Capitol Reef) in order to run the Silver Rush, so I could earn a ticket to the Leadville 100.

After a pretty good training season, I was expecting a PR and an easy ride to Leadville. As I started out with, by the time I hit the halfway mark, I knew my dreams were gone. Though only a few minutes behind my target time, I had worked way too hard and knew I could not keep it up for the return. All the way back, I kept mentally rearranging my racing and training schedule for the rest of the summer. There were plenty of positives - no more altitude training, total focus on the North Coast 24, etc.

I started to feel a bit better after the last aid station and pushed to the finish, but only so that I could at least break the 9 hour mark. I sprinted across the line with my worst time in 4 visits to the Silver Rush and was completely shocked when the gal handed me my finisher's medal, coffee mug, 3rd place age group award, and the coveted copper token to the Leadville 100!!
Apparently, many others had poor performances out there and my time was good enough.

All of a sudden, I was re-rearranging my racing and training plans.

5 weeks later, I jogged up to the start line of my 3rd consecutive Leadville 100, and for the first time, I wasn't even nervous. I felt comfortable and relaxed, knowing I had the experience and had earned my right to be there - not the least bit cocky, but I just felt comfortable. I wasn't even wearing my gps this time, opting to go strictly by feel.

I started way closer to the front than previous years and fell into a pretty good groove from the start. By the time I got to Turquoise Lake, only a few miles in, I hit the first snag. The flashlight that was supposed to last 2.5 hours was already dying!  With 1.5+hours till sunrise, I tried not to panic.

Then, part way around the lake, I missed a turn, going off course about a hundred yards, and I couldn't even blame it on the failing light. I got back on track, letting out a few choice words. Luckily, I made a conscious decision to keep a positive attitude. If the finish came down to a hundred yards, I could be mad again. Otherwise, I still had 95 miles to make things go right.

I tagged along with other runners to take advantage of their lights, marveling that I stayed upright on the dark trail, and finally made it into May Queen. Taking just seconds to unload my useless flashlight and refill my bottle, I headed out through the cheering crowd asking for the time. Joe Agnew (Kelly's wife) saw me, yelled out that it was 6:01, and sent me off with some encouraging words.
Only 12.5 miles in, but I was on my most optimistic pace. How long would this last? I had calculated 21 hours as a tough, yet achievable goal. That would be an hour better than last year, so a pretty good improvement if I could do it.  But, as usual, I had also planned out a super fast pace, mostly so I could be prepared if I ran certain sections really fast. I certainly wasn't planning on starting out that way. 

I felt good going up the backside of Powerline and even better flying down the front. Then, after a short section of asphalt, I rolled into Outward Bound, now 5 minutes ahead - so fast that Brenda and the girls weren't even there yet, as I was still moving faster than my fastest pace estimate

After a jaunt through the grass field, we were back out onto another stretch of pavement. It was at this point that I started to feel the morning's efforts. Fortunately, I was smart enough to ease things back a bit before it was too late.  I don't know where this bout of patience and maturity came from, but I'm sure it saved my race. 

It seemed to take forever to get to Half Pipe, and though I didn't know it at the time, I lost back that 5 minutes. I kept running smart, taking it easy on the up hills and rolling comfortably along on the downhills.  This is a deceptively difficult section - the field is stretched out so you can be alone at times, yet it's still early enough for many runners to be pushing too fast and pull you along. It's also one of the more "boring" sections of the course as there are no significant natural features and no spectators around

At Twin Lakes, I was met by Mike Robberts (who would pace me from Winfield),  Brenda, and the girls. I moved through pretty quickly and found out that I was pretty much right on my 20 hour pacing estimate.

I headed up towards Hope Pass and definitely felt stronger than the previous year, though I wasn't passing many runners. It turns out the reason was that I was so much further up the field than previous years, there were just fewer runners to pass.

The volunteers at the Hopeless aid station were awesome (as usual) and I didn't even have to slow my pace. They ran up to get my bottle, filled it and handed it back as I passed through. I was also greeted by Ethan Matyas, who was not racing but had come up with his son to hang out and cheer on the runners. 

Up Hope Pass I went and down the other side. It was quite a bit down that I finally came across the leader, Max King, who was on a record setting pace. By the time I hit the right turn that parallels the road, I had only crossed paths with 3 leaders - way fewer than previous years. Gradually, more runners came up the trail, and I stopped counting. Just after making the last turn down towards the road, I came across Tim Olsen, surprised that he was less than 2 miles ahead of me.

At the road, I saw David Silva, but of course, he had his camera off. Heading into the aid station, Mike greeted me and helped me transition through efficiently. I called out for the time and had to get a couple of responses before I could narrow it down to the minute (every minute was important). 9:30 into the race! 40+ minutes faster than previous years and still feeling pretty good. I knew that it was a long shot, but returning a full hour slower would still give me a chance at the 20 hour mark.

Mike and I headed back along the rolling trail where I was still crushing the downhill portions. Then to the left turn and up towards Hope. The day was getting hotter and I was feeling it, but was still pushing up at a reasonable pace. We passed a couple of runners on the way up and saw many friends coming down. It felt great to hit the pass, feel the cool breeze (the timers hanging out on top were wearing heavy down parkas), and see Twin Lakes far below.

Mike helped me get through Hopeless quickly and we continued to fly down the mountain, while still giving my legs a chance to recover from the climb. Back at Twin, I took a couple of minutes to re-hydrate with two cans of club soda and change to dry socks and brand new, out of the box shoes. Tania was there with some words of encouragement but soon we were back onto the course, not really knowing how I was doing on time.

On the way to Half Pipe, we see-sawed with a few sets of runners/pacers - I would pass on the downhills, they would catch up on the climbs, but slowly, I would pull away. As we got to within a couple of miles of the aid station, some guy and his pacer came whipping by, on a downhill, no less. Tuned out it was Mike Aish. Somehow, he fell way behind yet had rebounded strongly. Soon thereafter, we passed Tim Olsen, who was slowly walking on a relatively flat section. I hate to see anyone suffer, but I have to admit that it gave me a shot of adrenaline.

I had done some rough calculations as to the time I needed to still have a shot at 20, and when we got into the aid station, I was almost disappointed that I was still on. I was feeling a bit tired after 70 miles and  looked forward to slowing up a bit but with the magical 20 still a possibility, I just couldn't let the opportunity slide without an all out effort.

Into Outward Bound we came, with the sun still hanging over the mountains. Brenda and the girls were there for a quick emotional boost. I also swapped pacers. Mike had done an awesome job getting me this far and now it would be Anthony's turn.

I downed a can of Coke, big cup of ramen, put on a shirt, and off we went. My time into OB was borderline for making 20 but I pushed on, though I didn't want to overdo it just yet. I still had memories of my first year when I totally fell apart at the base of Powerline.

This year was as different as night and day. Literally. This was the first time I hit the base of the climb in daylight. Boy what a difference that makes - both physically and psychologically.

For an added boost, part way up the climb we came across a runner puking off the side of the trail. As we passed by and shared some encouraging words, Anthony whispered "I think that was Mike Aish".

Again, I don't relish anyone suffering, but it felt good to know that the only person to have passed me after mile 30 was now back behind me. Mike did make a push for a bit, but to no avail.

We finally broke down and pulled out our lights right before the summit. Just as we were hearing the commotion from my favorite aid station of all time. The stoners were out! It seems like they outdo themselves each year. These guys saved my life and my race the first year and I remind them of that each time. They are just awesome and provide such a needed energy boost this late in the race.
After some shots of Coke, Anthony and I flew down the back side towards May Queen. He seemed pleased with my downhill speed at this mileage, which made me feel pretty good. Pulling into May Queen, we quickly refueled and moved out. We had just over 2.5 hours till the 20 mark. This was doable, but it would be close and it certainly would not be easy.

Part way around Turquoise, I stopped to take a leak and in the light of the flashlight was shocked to see that I was pretty dehydrated. With almost 2 hours to go, much could still go wrong. I forced myself to drink more, fearing the kind of total collapse that I've experienced with severe dehydration.
We passed a couple of runners, but the trail around the lake just seems to be interminable at the end of a tough day. By the time we were wrapping around the east end of the lake, I probably hit my lowest point of the race, but thankfully Anthony did a great job of keeping me motivated. We finally hit mini-Powerline and did another quick time check. It was still within reach, but not having exact mileage and with the Boulevard uphill still to come, nothing was certain.

As we got closer to town, the previously unthinkable goal of 20 hours was right there in front of me, waiting to be grasped. My mind and body were fully exhausted as we crested the final hill and came into view of the finish line. And there ahead of me was the red "taillight" of another runner.  I pushed with everything I had left, but just didn't have enough distance to fully close the gap. 

19:51:47!!!!  I broke 20 and finished in 10th place overall. The two elements of my most optimistic secret dreams.

And as it turns out, that runner that finished less than a minute ahead of me was none other than Max King, who was on a record setting pace for the first 60+ miles.

As I was recovering in the medical tent after the race, I told everyone around how I was going to retire from Leadville. I had achieved almost impossible goals. There was no way I could outdo this performance. I needed to go out on top, like Michael Phelps, except without all the gold medals, or millions in endorsements, or superhuman physique...  Okay, pretty much nothing like Michael Phelps, but still, on top. It only took til sunrise for me to start rethinking that decision. Surely, if I trained just a little harder, I could shave a few more minutes off, and if the weather was even better, maybe a few more minutes. My family may have something to say about it, but at this point, Leadville number 4 is calling to me. 

After the race, I felt pretty good except for the plumbing. I was having to run to take a leak every 5-10 minutes and I thought I might have some internal bleeding (ultra runners freely talk about this kind of crap (pun intended)). Luckily, this all went away within the next 24 hours. By the time I woke up from a 3 hour nap, my legs were feeling pretty good too. They were a bit on the sore/stiff side, but not too bad at all.

All the training and experience paid off, in addition to a good load of luck. But another big reason for the success was that I constantly made minor changes to my pace and effort to keep pushing hard while not red-lining. I never really ran with anyone in the first half of the race, allowing me to keep my own pace the whole time. On the return, both pacers, Mike and Anthony allowed me to dictate the effort until the very end. With all my experience, there is nobody else who knows what my body should or shouldn't be doing at any particular time. Also, my 52 minute positive split is a clear indication of great pacing. While I'm still chasing the elusive negative split on a hundred miler, this came pretty darn close. 

2017 24 Hour World Championships - Belfast

“We didn’t bring anyone here to die, but we’re going to let you get damn close”
That’s the kind of motivational talk we got prior to the 2017 24 Hour World Championships in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

I went into this race under-trained, overweight, and wound up having intestinal issues for the last 5 hours, yet I still managed a PR and had an absolute blast.

Opening Ceremonies

The course consisted of a 1.02 mile loop around Victoria Park, near the Titanic quarters in Belfast.  Yes, that’s right, we were within sight of where the Titanic was built.  The path was about 14’ wide, exposed aggregate concrete, with 15’ of elevation gain/loss, mostly on one hill.

my beloved wife and one-woman crew, Brenda
the 3 alternates, prior to the start
Prior to the start, I placed myself in the middle of the pack of almost 400 runners.  The first couple of laps were all about runners sorting themselves out based on their respective paces.  I fell into a comfortable pace and was mainly surrounded by women, as most of the men went out quite fast.  Over the first 30 miles, I slowly picked up the pace, going strictly by feel.  I was even able to run a couple of laps with Jon Olson.  It was a real mental boost to run alongside a former World Champion.

The weather forecast proved to be quite accurate.  A couple of hours into the race, the drizzle started and eventually turned into a steady rain, which lasted an hour or so.  With temps in the low 60’s, I was comfortable the whole time and eventually, my thoroughly soaked singlet dried out.  Yup, that’s right, I wore a singlet.  International rules required a shirt or singlet top.

Aid station alley
The cool, humid weather made hydration a bit of a different game.  I drank less than I’m used to in the high altitude, desert climate of Colorado and Utah, yet for the first 5 hours, I was making numerous trips into the bushes (it was quicker and easier than going into the port-a-potties).

Making minor adjustments to my pace, I felt really good.  Eventually, the runners who were lapping me early on, stopped doing so.  I was even starting to claw back some of those laps.  It wasn’t until about 70 miles that I took a short stop to have a blister attended to.  I got back out there and continued the good lap times.  Other than a few feet every time I got a drink, I didn’t do any walking until about 110 laps in.  Even then, it was a short distance, up the one main hill on the course.

In addition to half a bottle of an energy/hydration mix early on, I mainly drank club soda, with a few Cokes mixed in later during the night.  My fueling consisted of Doritos and ginger snaps, with a few Honey Stinger waffles and cups of ramen noodles.  Historically, this has worked quite well for me.

Doritos - fuel of ...
Physically and mentally, I was having an awesome race.  All I had to do was continue on.  Unfortunately, after about 125 miles (19:30 into the race), my stomach started to rebel.  The next 4 ½ hours my pace dropped from 9:20/mile to 11:40 as I made a number of pit stops and had to work extra hard on managing hydration and nutrition.  With about 2 hours to go, this started to affect my legs, as my calves started to tighten up and I could feel them pulling on my Achilles.  I had no choice but to pull off twice and have the team doctor work on me.

Despite the issues over the last 5 hours, I had a decent race with a very respectable 148.13 miles, 31st out of 159 men.  Best of all, I proved to myself that I am capable of even better performances.  If I can train a little better, drop a few unneeded pounds, and manage my stomach through the latter parts of the race, I can truly be competitive - not a Worlds podium, but closer to the top.

the end - waiting for the final measurement

Here’s the biggest negative about this race - the timing system experienced huge failures.  Luckily, the lap counting system seemed to work (or so we thought).  Unfortunately, the display screen went out just shy of 12 hours into the race.  It came up a couple of hours later.  As soon as it did, I took the time to read my data and saw that I was at 100 miles at just past 14 hours!  Needless to say, I was elated.  This was 1 ½ hours faster than I had ever hit the 100 mile mark.  I couldn’t believe how totally awesome I was running.  However, I soon started to do the simple math that my brain could still manage and realized that there was no way I could have gone from a 7:38 first 50 miles to a 6:30 second 50.  Clearly something was wrong.  I soon hooked up with fellow American runner, Gina Slaby and checked with her.  She was tracking on her watch and we soon determined that the system was off by at least 6 laps.  I couldn’t believe that kind of a screw-up could happen in a World Championship event.  Eventually, the display system went out again, PERMANENTLY!  And, to make things even better, the race clock went out for a number of hours.  The display never came back on and unless runners had crew keeping track, or were wearing GPS watches, we were running blind.  I don’t know if I could have run any farther, but not knowing where I am that far in a race is beyond frustrating.

The other negatives about the race organization was the Opening Ceremony/Pasta Dinner and the Final Banquet.  I found the Opening Ceremony to be a bit underwhelming.  The venue was a small soccer stadium which meant that audience was limited to crews and family members.  The pasta dinner afterwards was a flop.  The space was less than half of what was needed for the number of people present.  The two buffet lines were long and slow, and there was nowhere to sit once you did get your food.  They actually made a PA announcement asking people to eat and leave so that others could have a turn.  Seriously?  The American delegation just skipped this altogether, as I’m sure numerous others did.

The Final Banquet was even worse.  Just hours after all these runners completed the race, they put out two stations with four types of hores de vour, which they ran out of in the first 10 minutes.  It took them another 30 minutes to replenish, and let me tell you, the snacks were a joke, both in quality and quantity.  Again, many of us left and went out on our own.  These failure on the social venue were quite disappointing, especially since the American crew was so large (with crews, family, and support staff) that we stayed in a hotel, rather than at the college with the other national teams.  This really limited the interaction that an international event of this nature should encourage.

I don’t want to focus on the negatives, but I hope the local organizing committee got a good earful with respect to the Pasta Dinner, Final “Banquet” and especially the timing failures.  These were not complex issues to avoid.

Seriously - As of this writing, 15% of the women's and 30% of the men's results were adjusted (mostly up) almost a month after the race.  The US men's and women's teams got knocked down a place to 4th and 2nd respectively.  Appeals have been filed, but no new information has been provided.

even the helpers have to stay up for 24 hours

I want to end on a positive note:

Not being part of the actual team, I did not have an official USA uniform, but I did wear the USA singlet from Run4Water, and for 24 hours (to all but my wife), I was no longer Adrian Stanciu.  I was “USA” – “way to go, USA”, “keep it up USA”, “looking good USA”, etc.  It was an awesome feeling.

To most people (even runners), the 24 hour ultra is an obscure, insane sporting event.  But to those who have participated, especially in a National or World Championship, the energy, camaraderie, and support are infectious.  I got to run side-by-side with some of the best runners in the US and the world and I proved (mostly to myself) that I have earned the right to be there.

I am absolutely glad that I went along, as an alternate.  And I am so incredibly grateful to my wife, Brenda for everything she has had to put up with for me to get to this point and then to single-highhandedly support me during the race.  This experience motivated me to try to get onto the team for 2019, but if that doesn’t happen, I will always have Belfast to look back upon.