Friday, August 4, 2017

Burning River 100 2017: Bringing home the buckle


The smell of victory.
Two straight DNFs will mess with one’s brain and wreck one’s body. Humbled but uninjured after Burning River last year, Jordan convinced me that my racing year wasn’t over; that I should count the 72 miles I ran as a training run, and maintain my level of fitness after a short recovery. The Tunnel Hill 100 in November seemed like a good second try at a buckle; a double out-and-back course on a flat, fine-gravel recreation trail in Vienna, Illinois. After having a support crew and pacers at Burning River, I went solo for this attempt; camping overnight at the start and utilizing aid stations. The first 50 miles went well; I stuck to my run/walk plan and kept up with food (even grabbing a whole ‘lunch’ around noon), reaching the halfway point in 10:30. I stopped long enough to put on warmer clothes and started back out as the temperatures dropped. I had planned my clothes on the assumption that I’d be running, but a recent knee injury restricted me to walking, and I couldn’t generate enough heat to stay warm. I told the aid station worker at mile 65 I was done and curled up next to the fire pit. I got a ride back to the start with another runner’s crew and crawled underneath two sleeping bags before driving home the next morning.

After some soul searching, I realized the Burning River DNF bothered me most, so Jordan encourage me to target it again this year. I made a training plan to address my shortcomings from last year; I raced two 50ks and a 50 miler, incorporated speedwork, hit the weights at the gym, and introduced myself to that special torture which is the stair climber. I ended up running fewer miles total in the run-up to this year’s race, but was convinced that quality would trump quantity.

The days before the race were relaxed. My parents came to Cincinnati to watch Fuller, and I hitched a ride up to Akron with a fellow runner whose accomplishments and experience were inspiring and educational. Jordan joined me later that evening, and I was in bed by 9:15.

The 1:30 alarm to catch the bus went off after a good 4 hours of sleep; I sat around at the start to save energy, and felt calm as the seconds ticked down to the start. Committing to not make the same mistakes as I had last year, I made a point to walk across the starting line so as not to go out too fast and to set a conservative tone for the day. I deliberately kept to the back of the pack during those first 11 road miles, walking even the slightest hint of an uphill. I wore a GPS watch for the first half and obsessively checked that my pace never went faster than 10 minute miles. And through it all I felt awful… Every injury I’d dealt with this year made itself known, and I felt under-trained and out of shape. I finally started to loosen up after 20 miles when I first saw Jordan at Shadow Lake. I picked up more shot bloks, decided against carrying solid food (the aid stations had great options), filled up all three water bottles, and got back on the trail. The weather was still cool and the trails lush, and I made a point to take it all in and thoroughly enjoy myself.

All business at the Meadows.
Photo credit Pat Dooley
  
As I was familiar with this section of the course from last year, the next few sections flew by. I felt like I sprang to life when we finally hit some proper single track on the Buckeye Trail. The mix of trail surfaces would turn out to be a good thing; about the time I’d get tired of pavement, we’d be back on a bridle trail or single track. Around mile 36 I encountered my first real challenge: my right leg began to seize up and I had searing pain in my hip joint. I was pretty sure it was a bad cramp in my quad, so I decided to hobble as best I could to the Meadows aid station at mile 38, see Jordan, address the cramp, get some salt and Advil, and get back on the trail. Jordan could probably tell I was struggling as I came into the aid station, and she got right to work with the marathon stick on the very obvious knot in my right leg while I lay back gritting my teeth and trying not to scream. All of a sudden a woman appeared and said, “Is he cramping? I’ve got just the thing.” In a moment she was back with magnesium cream all over her hands. All but elbowing Jordan out of the way, she said, “I’m going in!”, reached her hands up my shorts, and began to mercilessly work on the knot. I have no idea what she looks like because I was squeezing my eyes shut to the pain. After about 30 seconds, I felt the knot disappear, cried “STOP!” to this ultra-angel, and thanked her profusely. Once the Advil took affect 30 minutes later, it was like the cramp had never happened. Whoever she was, crew person or volunteer, she saved my race. I hopped up, got some Nutella, banana, and potato chips wrapped in a tortilla (so good!), and got back on the trail, feeling like I had a new lease on life.

I had crafted much of my training this year to prepare specifically for the next 12 miles. While there aren’t any really long climbs at Burning River, there are a lot of them, and they’re steep and rugged. The time I logged on the YMCA stair climber really began to show on this section as I powered up the climbs, even passing some relay runners when the hills got especially steep. Last year I became demoralized heading into the aid station at Boston Mills when I realized I wasn’t going to break 10 hours, but this year I was pleased to cover the first half in just under 12 hours. I loaded up with more shot bloks, headlamp and flashlight, potato chips and a pickle, and set out with Jordan feeling better than I had all day.

With Jordan there, the race became even more fun. We chatted about the day, and I told her all the stories I’d accumulated so far in the race. My next big issue began to creep up, and would define much of the rest of the race: I could feel blisters forming on the balls of my feet. Learning from last year’s mistakes, I’d come prepared with 4 changes of socks and a crude blister kit. The left foot was the worst, so I found some band aids and medical tape at the Ledges aid station and did my best to reduce the friction. My poor taping job didn’t last long, so at the next aid station (Pine Hollow 1), I covered both feet with Vaseline and put on fresh socks from the drop bag. While dealing with blisters, I was covering the section where my race fell apart last year, and I was combating anxiety by comparing how I felt now to how I remember feeling last year. We passed a bench where I’d laid down during the race and first contemplated dropping; Jordan suggested I stand on top of it and strike a pose. Which I did. I could easily tell I was so far better prepared this year. It gave me encouragement for the way ahead.

Speaking of encouragement: in the weeks and days before the race, Jordan had reached out to family members and old running friends to record messages and videos that she saved to her iPhone. She showed them to me as we were approaching aid stations or when she sensed I needed a pick up. She even read Facebook updates from our Cincinnati based running group. It was an awesome feeling knowing so many good friends were rooting for me to succeed.

As it got full dark, the primary difficulty began to be fatigue. Once I passed Pine Hollow 1 at mile 72, I was in unexplored territory, running further than I ever had before. I was surprised by how bad my feet hurt (blisters and general soreness), how good my legs felt (once the cramp was dealt with, my legs felt great), and how dog-tired I was. So many times, I just wanted to lay down in the trail and go to sleep. Feeling desperately tired, I sat on a stump, and discovered the beauty of cat naps. I put my head on my knees, asked Jordan to get me up in two minutes, and tried to relax. It worked wonders; I felt reset, and once the stiffness of sitting wore off, I could run again. I repeated this a number of times through the night (probably more times than Jordan thought prudent), but it was the only thing I found that really helped the fatigue.

I’d been warned by past finishers that the loops at Pine Hollow and the Covered Bridge were the toughest sections of the course, and they did not disappoint. Both consisted mostly of horse trails, and those fine animals had torn up the trail surface something fierce. With blisters on both feet, every misplaced step was painful (which seemed to be most of them). These trails were also really steep; I got confused trying to decide if the light I saw above me was the moon or the headlamp of a runner further up the trail (it was frequently the latter). Once we reached the Covered Bridge 2 (definitely my favorite aid station; they just seemed to be having the most fun), I knew most of the remaining course was towpath or road. The blisters required more attention; this aid station didn’t have medical tape, but they did have BIG band aids and duct tape, which finally fixed the buggers. I commented to Jordan sometime later that I’d temporarily forgotten I had blisters, such was the magic of the duct tape (it’s going in my pack from now on).

Now I was back in familiar territory, having paced Jordan for the remaining sections when she ran this race in 2011. We tried to make better time now that the running surface was easier; if I couldn’t run, I tried to keep up the ‘ultra shuffle.’ I took another catnap at Botzum (or tried to; helpful volunteers kept checking on me, and I felt bad to see their apologetic faces when I said I was trying to take a nap), got one last dose of solid food, and got serious about getting this thing done. Jordan suggested we run 5 minutes and walk 2 on the long stretch of towpath to the next aid station. Like magic, after 10 reps we were at Memorial Parkway, the last aid station before the finish. I topped off my water, planned to survive on shot bloks til the end, and set out for the last 4.2 miles of my first 100 mile finish.

As we got closer to the finish, the emotions started to hit. I’d fought for this finish for a long time. When I first contemplated running 100 miles, I wanted to earn a place in the ultra community, and to fit in with our running group (we know a lot of very accomplished runners). But after a year and a half of training and two DNFs at the distance, I just wanted this for me. Around mile 99 or 100 (the course measured 102.2 this year), I pulled ahead of Jordan, let the emotions come, and just flew down the trail. The feeling of running that fast with that many miles in my legs was worth every mile of training. I didn’t really believe my body was that capable, but it is, and it was a magnificent feeling. Jordan caught up to me as I slowed down approaching the infamous series of steps (they really weren’t that bad) in the final miles before the road back in to Cuyahoga Falls.

They say don’t celebrate too early, and it’s true; my little life-affirming wild-man trail moment caused my butt to start cramping once we got on the road section into town. Chastised, I walked most of the last mile, running again as I approached the finishers chute with that great big clock that signifies the end of most footraces. Crossing the line, I put my head down for the volunteer to place the buckle around my neck. I found I was laughing and crying at the same time; crying out of happiness, and laughing because I couldn’t believe what I’d just done. This was a long time coming, and I wanted it bad.

Some surprising truths struck me during the race. I realized running 100 miles is not a physical challenge; it’s a mental one. While I think there’s a base level of fitness required to cover the distance, a strong mind is vastly more important. One quote from a recent training article stuck with me and saw me through many miles: it’s not about how you feel; it’s how you feel about how you feel. Many times I’d repeat to myself: my feet hurt, but that’s okay; I’m tired, but that’s okay. Fatigue was a much bigger challenge than I expected; my cat naps seemed to work, but next time, I’ll bring even more coffee.

Some technical stats. I ate at least 20 packets of shot bloks; I’d packed solid foods in drop bags, but went with aid station fair which worked well. I drank 4 servings of Roctane and 3 6oz cans of coffee. I carried 57oz of water at a time (two hard 21oz bottles and a 15oz collapsible flask) and by rough estimation, I probably drank 4 to 5 gallons of water (the thought of drinking water would eventually begin to turn my stomach…). Five days post race, the only lingering issues are the blisters, and I know those will take time.

I haven’t figured out the 100 mile distance, but I’ve got my foot in the door now. I’ve earned the right to contemplate and dream of steeper and higher races, and look forward to getting back to the work of training.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Broken Toe 50K: Aborted Experiment



                Yesterday was the Broken Toe 50k, a race I had signed up for on a whim as I was feeling fairly good after Grindstone. I had a secret strategy for this race (secret because anyone reasonable would try to talk me out of it). Typically, I run conservatively, sometimes feeling I could have gone faster. I wanted to push the pace from the beginning, a bit of an experiment. I viewed it as a 31 mile tempo run.
                I started out the first mile (road, mostly downhill) at what still seemed a comfortable pace and found myself in the top five—the top five men, that is. I looked at one of them and said, “I’m not this fast. Where is everyone?” A couple people passed me, but then as we turned onto the leaf covered singletrack, I immediately passed them back.
                The trails were beautiful with lots of great views of the lake. It was really a great course with some nice ups and downs (a few of them steep enough that I could walk without feeling guilty about it) and rocks and roots buried under the leaves. I hit the 4.7 mile aid station at 55 minutes, not all that fast, but I was still very much at the front of the pack. The next aid station was ~ 8.7 miles, and I arrived there at 1:40. I was hopeful I could run a sub-6 hour race.
                We headed back to the main aid station, a section that I understood to be 4.6 miles. I was running along at my “fast” pace, finishing some shot blocks, and looking for a good tree to pee behind. Wham! I was on the ground. My knee stung enough that I limped a little as I started to run again. Good time to pee then; I would also get a chance to recover from the fall. The knee didn’t bother my much as I kept going. What I did start to notice was my heels. I had grabbed a pair of Smartwools without much consideration in the morning, and apparently this pair had holes in both of the heels. The shoes I was wearing rubbed right at those holes. I made plans to get band aids at the next aid station, which should be coming soon.
                Except it wasn’t. I wouldn’t reach the next aid station until 2:49, even though I didn’t really feel I had slowed down. Thankfully, Lori was at the aid station and had bandaids in her car. I stuck them over the places where my heels were already bleeding and cheerfully headed back on the trail, glad to have found my solution. Two minutes later, the pain was back. I stopped a couple of times to adjust band aids and socks, but it soon reached the point where it hurt just as much not matter what I did. I have run 11 hours with bleeding heels before. The pain only got worse and I soaked socks in blood all the way down to my toes. I did not want a repeat of that experience, so I turned around and walked back to the aid station to drop out, having run about half of the race.
                I’m still pleased with the day. It was starting to get hot when I stopped and I would have needed to slow down for the rising temperatures. I likely overshot it some with my faster pace, which just means I got a better work out in for the 16 miles I did run. And it was fun to pretend to be fast for a morning, hanging out with the men in 4th-ish place. During my last attempt to fix my sock, the next woman passed me and looked super strong. I feel confident she would have passed me soon even if my heels had not given me problems.
                Today I’m sore in some interesting ways, some which I can attribute to my fall and some which seem to be from running faster. One has me puzzled: the muscles between my ribs, equally on both sides. Any thoughts?
                After 12 miles last weekend, 16 yesterday ended up fitting perfectly into training for the next race: Lookout Mountain 50 Miler.
                Thanks for reading!
                -Jordan



Not sure how I scraped the front of the knee and bruised the side

Monday, October 10, 2016

Grindstone 100 Race Report: Misery Loves Company



The Grindstone 100 calls itself “without a doubt, the hardest 100 miler east of the 100th meridian.” There might be some runners who have run/attempted the Barkley Marathons in Tennessee who would take issue with that claim, but regardless, it met one of my main criteria of being harder than any race I had done before, a necessary motivator for training. I was also looking for a well-established fall 100 a drivable distance from Cincinnati. Grindstone was the obvious choice.

Aside from the 100 mile distance (or rather, 101.85 miles), Grindstone has a number of challenging features. It boasts over 23,000 feet of elevation gain (and accompanying 23,000 feet of loss) in the Virginia mountains, some impressively rocky sections, long distances between aid stations, and a 6 PM start time which means slower runners run through two nights instead of one. Bonus for 2016: it rained the entire time we were out there.

My primary goal was to finish the race, but I had chosen 34 hours (planning for 15 hours on the way out and 19 hours on the way back) as a reasonable time to shoot for. Because of its difficulty, Grindstone’s cut-off is 38 hours instead of the traditional 30 hours. I was initially planning to run without crew or pacer, but my wonderful parents agreed to come up from South Carolina to provide support, particularly by watching Fuller on Saturday. This freed up Nathan to pace me.

Pace chart attached to vest with elevation profile on other side


Nathan and I packed up the massive amount of stuff it takes to run a 100 miler and travel with a 16 month old on Thursday and drove to Western Virginia. Friday morning we got up as usual as 6:30 AM when Fuller woke up and spent the morning exploring the Grand Caverns just north of us, escaping the light rain that had already started. The lunch and pre-race meeting took up most of the early afternoon (I won a hydration pack in the raffle!) and then we headed back to our cottage where I lay down for an hour to rest before making final preparations for the race.

Sorting drop bags

Yummy cookie with logo and elevation profile! Do not eat until after running 100 miles.

The "before" photo. The sweatshirt would not come with me.

Crew! Start/Finish line in background with totem pole you must hug to officially finish

I was careful to position myself towards the back of the pack at the start of the race, committed to walking at least one minute out of every ten from the start even if people around me were going faster. My parents, delayed by multiple wrecks on the way, made it just in time to cheer for me as I passed in the first mile, and then we were off into the mountains. My legs didn’t feel fresh, but I tried not to worry about it.

It was already completely dark by the time I hit the first aid station, a little ahead of schedule. Next was the climb up Elliot’s Knob, the highest point in the race. I ran the gradual parts of the climb, my legs feeling much better on the uphills, and powerhiked the steeper parts. After descending a little back down the gravel round, we turned onto technical single track that was initially difficult to run by headlamp in the rain and eventually not runnable at all, at least not for me. Thankfully, the next section had a shorter climb then a nice long mostly runnable descent.

The Dowell’s Draft Aid Station at mile 22 was the first to have a drop bag, and I restocked food and got out quickly. I encountered brief nausea a couple of times in this section, but I had patience to walk until it passed rather than trying to push through it, and I didn’t have any more stomach problems. I did get very sleepy; midnight passed and my eyes were not focusing well given the darkness, poor visibility from the rain, and my sleep deprivation. There were a few times I actually had the sense I was falling asleep while running, and I was already having the illusions that seem to be a rite of passage at Grindstone. It was far too early for that nonsense! I knew I would feel better when the sun came up, but that was still 7 hours away. I told myself that I was not allowed to drop while it was dark and kept moving. I reached the aid station 30 minutes before I expected to, which brought me out of my funk.

The next section was “short,” only 6.35 miles, but it struck me as a little slow because of fairly technical trails. Plus, I was looking forward to the following section to Little Bald Knob, the most significant climb of the race. I was planning to do a lot of power-hiking and eating while resting my descending muscles. While overall the section to Little Bald Knob does gain a net of about 3000 feet over 7 miles, it wasn’t the steady climb I expected. There were steep sections, and the rain had created thick mud that left little to grip. I was very pleased with how my Inov-8s preformed, minimally slipping in the mud. I had passed a sign that said 4.5 miles to Little Bald Knob, and an hour and a half later, I was thinking the aid station had to be close. In fact, it was another 3-4 miles. These miles would have been easy (largely on jeep trail) if they weren’t mostly flooded by rain. In that time, I made up my mind to ask Nathan to join me at the turn-around to pace me, our contingency plan for if I was struggling (otherwise he would have joined me with 36 miles to go). Mostly, I was miserable and I wanted him to see how miserable that section was.

I was also getting cold. I had planned clothes based on the weather forecast for nearby Staunton, which said it would stay 63 degrees for the whole first 24 hours of the race (and rain the whole time), then drop to a low in the high 40s Saturday night. As I crossed to the western sides of the mountains, the cold front was there waiting for me, and I was unprepared in my short and short sleeves. When I finally got to Little Bald Knob, my hands were numb so I asked a volunteer to add to the pre-typed text I had ready for Nathan: “I need you and pink jacket.” She pressed send but there was no cell phone signal. I tried not to panic.

I kept my phone out and started down the trail, checking for service every minute or so. Finally I found a patch and called Nathan, who said he’d be on his way soon. When my numb hands couldn’t open my shot blocks, I asked a fellow runner named Laura to open them for me, and she very kindly insisted I take her gloves until the turn-around as she proclaimed herself “quite toasty.” I was impressed with her upbeat and positive attitude and did my best to draw energy from it.

When I reached the turn-around (right on my pace at 15 hours), Nathan had not arrived yet; I hadn’t given him enough time to get Fuller settled with my mother and drive the 50+ miles of backroads with my dad to meet me. I tried to call Nathan, but again there was no cell phone service. As I stood still, I was getting colder, and all the spots around the heater were taken. I changed into my dry short sleeve shirt from my drop bag and munched on some bacon and potato chips and waited. Mentally, I could suck it up and meet Nathan 15 miles later, but physically, I needed that jacket before I could leave. Yes, I cried a little. Dad and Nathan got there 10 minutes later and it was time to get warm and start pulling myself together. I put on the jacket, changed into dry socks, and had some coffee and a small pancake. I had spent a very long time at the aid station (~40 minutes), but it was time to get going again.

Oh, it was so good to have Nathan with me! We ran a lot of the way back to Little Bald Knob, where one of the volunteers proclaimed, “See, I knew you’d come back!” Hang on, who said anything dropping? I must have looked rough earlier. Then onto that hated section. It was still long, but nothing like I remember. I was actually disappointed it didn’t live up to the description I had given Nathan. Admittedly, it was downhill on the way back.

The next section I remembered being technical, but it was actually nice and runnable, and we made good time. I was passing people consistently and had loosened up my rules around walking at least one minute out of every 10 since it was the second half of the race and I was feeling good. I knew things would get more difficult when the sun went down, so I pushed to get at least through Dowell’s Draft before we needed headlamps.

Indeed, it got tougher after dark, but I think this was as much the course as the darkness. The section leading back to Dry Branch Gap had a climb, but I had incorrectly remembered that it was gradual and would probably be runnable on the way back. Nope. It was steep and long. At times, it was quite rocky. It seemed to never end. I had been making such good time, and I wanted more trails that I could run.

The gradual climb I was anticipating started off the next section, but it soon got so much worse. The trail continued to ascend but became entirely covered in large (think encyclopedia sized) very loose rocks which were wet and frequently moss covered, with a steep-drop off just beside it. Coupled with darkness and mist limiting visibility in the headlamp at mile 90, the trail was simply not runnable for me. I had been enjoying crushing projected paces for prior sections and after the climb of the last section and now this, I found myself prone to whining. I was moving slowly to avoid breaking an ankle or falling off the mountain, so I wasn’t surprised that it took a long time before we reached the gravel road descent. It started out steep but I ran it anyway; it was getting too late in the race to worry about saving quads anymore. As the course leveled out some I picked up the pace, but the mud and new stream crossings that had developed across the course with the rain had not spared this section and a few parts were a little slower. It was 30 minutes later than I had planned when we reached the last aid station.

My watch time said 30:33 when we started out on the final 5.18 miles. I wanted to break 32 hours. It seemed reasonable; I had done the outbound section in 1:17, the return trip was more downhill than uphill, and my legs still felt pretty good. It turned out that the climb on the way back was on a dirt road but the descent was on technical trail, forcing my to walk a lot of the climb and the descent. Oh well. The last couple miles were runnable, and I enjoyed running to the finish in 32:13 to hug the totem pole and collect my belt buckle and a nice technical long sleeve finisher’s shirt.


Hugging the totem pole 32 hours later!

                         
Having Nathan with me those last 50 miles helped so much. The first night was so lonely as my rigidity with my conservative plan prevented me from running with anyone. He gave me lots of compliments to boost my spirits throughout the back-half, functioned as crew at each aid station, and provided the company I really needed. His pacing was entirely made possible by my parents, and I understand Fuller absolutely loved having a day with his grandparents. I’m not sure whether I would have finished without their fantastic support, but I know I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. I’m also so grateful for the volunteers. Many of them were out there for ridiculous hours in the middle of the night(s) and through the cold rain. Specifically, there was some homemade chicken noodle soup somewhere (Lookout Mountain?) on Saturday night which was among the best things I have ever tasted. Thank you all so much!

And before you ask, yes, I will put my name in the Hardrock lottery.