Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Leadville Trail 100

The idea of running the Leadville Trail 100 had been bouncing around my head for a few years. I ran my first 100 last year, flat loops at sea level, and then Pikes Peak giving me experience at altitude. Since those races didn't kill me, I felt running Leadville was achievable, albeit an extreme challenge. It probably would have been smarter to start with a lesser mountain 100. But nothing about running 100 miles denotes smart so I took the plunge and signed up on January 1st as soon as registration opened.

I decided Leadville would be my only goal race for the year. I would structure all my running and racing around preparing for LT100.  By January I already had a solid base of 50 mpw. In February I ran a 50K and finished almost an hour faster than the previous year. This became a case of finding my form too early though and by March I was struggling with a bulky shin and had to cancel a 100K. I took about two weeks off and then ran the very difficult Bear Mountain 50M course in May. I struggled with this race but used it as the jumping off point to really ramp up my Leadville training. Between June and July I racked up more than 610 miles in 61 days and ran another 3 ultras. I also attended the Leadville running camp which gave me the opportunity to run the entire course, including a double crossing of Hope Pass. By the time I started my taper I had forgotten what it felt like to be anything other than exhausted and limping 24/7. My goal was to finish in 28:00 +/- 2 hours. That would keep me well ahead of the 30 hour cutoff and I could tell from previous results that I was unlikely to go sub 26:00. It felt reasonable on paper but ultra-marathons aren't run on paper. It was time to put up or shut up.

Maybe so but it is NOT great running at 10,200 feet

I didn't have time for extended acclimation so I flew out of Newark airport Thursday and arrived in Leadville less than 36 hours before the start of the race. We spent Friday doing last minute errands, prepping drop bags and impressing the employees at Family Dollar. Yes, I’m buying a dozen bags of candy and yes I might consume all of it in the next two days. We also drove around to familiarize my wife, Tracy, with some of the aid stations. Leadville is a 50 mile course out. Then you turn around and run the same route back. The plan was for her to see me either at the Boat Ramp (mile 8 / 92) or May Queen (mile 13 / 87) and then again at Twin Lakes (mile 40 / 60). She would assist where possible but I wasn't counting on her to actively crew for me. I had arranged for my pacer, Katie, to meet me at Twin Lakes inbound and she would run either 16 or 26 miles. For the rest, I would be on my own. There were close to 1000 starters so I was never really alone.

The forecast looked excellent, 70F / 40F with a slight chance of rain and almost no wind. I set my alarm for 3AM but awoke a few minutes early. I downed a bagel and some Powerade (should have eaten more) and headed down to the start in time to get a few pictures before the 4AM gun. Once we got underway I settled into a very comfortable pace of 10:00 miles. The first section was mostly downhill on paved / gravel roads so we made quick progress. I passed the boat ramp at about 5:30AM and stopped for a minute to see Tracy and swallow a Gu before regaining my spot in the single-file line of runners. Later Tracy texted me to say there was no parking at May Queen so she wouldn't see me again until Twin Lakes. After following the shore of Turquoise Lake for the last few miles, I arrived at MQ aid station at 6:30AM and found it to be well stocked but extremely crowded. I stopped for a bathroom break and grabbed some coke / cookies but still spent what felt like way too much time navigating my way through the mass of runners.

After MQ, the route joined the Colorado Trail and became somewhat technical for a few miles before opening back onto gravel roads for the first serious climb up Powerline. Finally the crowd of runners started to break and I felt very relaxed power hiking this section which offered beautiful views back down to Turquoise Lake. Cresting Powerline at 11,500 ft we immediately started the long, winding descent to the bottom where we rejoined the road for the last few miles into Fish Hatchery / Outward Bound aid station at mile 24. At this point I ditched my headlight and long sleeve into my drop bag. I grabbed some calories and a change of socks, refilled my water bladder, then headed for the medical tent. I could feel a hotspot developing and wanted to get ahead of it as I still had more than 20 hours to go. The medic fixed me up with some moleskin and I was moving again in less than 10 minutes total.

Easy trail near mile 27

The next section was mostly flat on paved roads, then dirt roads before reaching Half Pipe aid station at mile 30. Along the way I saw my first familiar faces, Emmanuel and his support crew from NYC who offered me a variety of drinks and snacks although I waved them off still feeling fresh. At Half Pipe I met Jeff whose house we were renting in Leadville. He was very busy coordinating the volunteers and I didn't need much so I was quickly on my way, eager to get to Twin Lakes and see Tracy again. To this point I hadn't really been paying attention to the cutoffs. My goal was to finish the first 40 miles in 8 hours (2 hours ahead of cutoff) and I arrived in TL pretty close, about 8 minutes behind schedule. Tracy had my drop bag and I planned to change shoes to keep my Hokas dry and use my Salomons to cross the river as they are much better at shedding water. I refilled my bladder but couldn't find a good spot to sit near the aid station so I ended up removing my shoes about 100 feet beyond. I knew I had a few hot spots so I asked Tracy to get some moleskin from the medical tent. Instead she came back in 5 minutes with a medic in tow who insisted on providing in person service. He quickly fixed me up and I was on my way with about 12 minutes of down time, probably my longest stop of the race.

Twin Lakes was pretty crowded so it took a few minutes to run through all the spectators before we headed out of town, across a grassy meadow and to the banks of Lake Creek. I didn't cross the creek in June and wasn't sure what to expect. It turned out to be about 50 feet wide, knee deep in places and very cold. I hurried across and then to the foot of the climb up Hope pass. Having done a double crossing in June, I knew what was coming next and that it was going to suck; a 3,400 ft climb up to the top of Hope Pass at 12,600 ft. Then immediately dropping 2,400 ft down into Winfield before reversing it all back to TL. I figured the next 20 miles were the crux of the race. If I could get back to TL in reasonable shape I had a high probability of finishing. Therefore the goal was to finish the double crossing in 8 hours and simply maintain my near 2 hour cushion.

The climb up Hope was mostly uneventful. My feet dried quickly and I only had to stop once to catch my breath. About an hour below the Hopeless aid station I saw the leaders coming back inbound. I didn't recognize the first two but Nick Clark was 3rd and Scott Jurek 4th. Hopeless aid station is within sight of the top of the pass so I felt re-energized when I arrived. The llamas also helped to perk up my spirits and I reached the top of the pass 2h15min out of TL. On the back side of Hope I crossed paths with the Women’s leader and continued the very steep descent then rolled into Winfield and the turnaround at exactly 12 hours, right on schedule! Winfield was a circus and not in a good way. I stood for the mandatory weigh in and was shocked that I’d dropped only 1 pound. I took that as a sign to continue status quo on nutrition / hydration. I grabbed some fast calories and got out of Winfield in a hurry, dodging traffic as I went (literally weaving between vehicles stuck in place).

Far side of Hope Pass from 12,600 ft

The climb up the back side of Hope was torturous, as expected. I actually ran by Michael Oliva shortly out of Winfield. I’d never met him in person but recognized him from the net and introduced myself. I knew he was running Leadville this year but didn't really expect to see him. We kept company for a little while then he left me and proceeded to obliterate the Hope climb and the rest of the race in general finishing in a blistering 24:31. I continued at a much more measured pace and required numerous stops before I regained the pass again. Each time I would rest for 20 or 30 seconds to allow my heart rate to slow from ‘totally jacked’ to only ‘moderately uncomfortable’ before continuing on. Somehow I reached the pass 2h16min out of Winfield, only 1 minute slower than climbing from the other side. Hopeless had run out of cups at this point so I drank soup and coke from a communal ladle. Good thing I’m not a germaphobe. The rest of the descent to TL was followed quickly. I was actually looking forward to Lake Creek this time as I was feeling a little warm.

I hit Twin Lakes a few minutes before 8PM, exactly as planned, but spent a little time switching back into my Hokas and getting blisters treated. Katie was ready to go so we did introductions on the move. The climb up out of TL on the side of Elbert is steep and we did more hiking than running. Katie was good company and these miles passed quickly. Probably should have run more and talked less but I was actually enjoying myself. However, one thing I really struggled with was regulating body temperature. With the sun gone and the temperature falling I would rapidly swing from chills to sweating. I ditched the heavy shirt I added in TL and switched to clothing with zippers that I could vent frequently. Somewhere on the way to Outward Bound around mile 70 I realized my energy was lagging. Also the 20-odd Gu I had consumed were not settling well and I was plagued by stomach problems for most of the rest of the race, which really sapped my "speed".

Leaving Twin Lakes inbound at mile 60

By the time we reached OB there was less than a marathon to go and 10 hours to finish. I could feel my feet were blistering pretty good at this point but I was too tired to pay much attention. Katie noticed my headlight was fading and swapped out the batteries with some extras she had while I sat on a chair and commiserated with a fellow runner. Then we were up and moving again towards the base of Powerline. At the top of the first steep climb I tried to swallow one Gu too many and had an immediate gag reflex. For a few minutes I had a metallic taste in my mouth and thought I was about to empty the rest of my stomach but it slowly subsided and I was able to get moving again. That was the end of the Gu though. Powerline went on forever but we made slow, steady progress and reached May Queen at 3:30AM where we met up with Tracy and Katie's friend Marie. I was expecting Katie to drop but she said she had gone that far and might as well see me through to the finish. We left MQ with 6.5 hours to complete little more than a half marathon; at that point finishing was a mere formality.

The finish is all uphill

Funny thing about formalities though, you still have to do the work. My quads were trashed and my stomach was still in knots. Also, I was struggling with depth perception making it difficult to see the footing along the trail. However, we still managed respectable 15:00 miles through this section and passed a few runners. By the time we turned onto 6th Street the sun was up and the road was almost empty. It was an odd feeling having traveled the same section with hundreds of other runners only one day prior. In the distance the loud speaker announced the time, 2.5 minutes to break 27 hours. It was too far, the uphill finish too steep. I was resigned to coast the rest of the way. At my side, Katie kept urging me to run. Finally I broke into a jog, then a run, then I was "sprinting" up the red carpet and across the finish line; 27:00:19, I should have listened to Katie. Really though, I couldn't have cared less. I finished and nearly an hour under goal time, 198th of 944 starters and 497 finishers. We walked to Jeff’s house to clean up then headed back to the finish to watch my friend Jessie finish her first 100 in 29:26, success all around!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Pikes Peak Marathon

Why did I sign up for this race? As I stood in the Garden of the Gods last week and stared up at the summit of Pikes Peak I reflected on how I had gotten to this point; after running a couple marathons and then ultra marathons over the last few years, the prospect of a race that was not only horizontal but vertical seemed like an intriguing challenge. Now that I was face to face with the task at hand I couldn't help but feel anxious to get started.

I was pretty confident I would finish under the 10 hour cutoff but beyond that, I wasn't sure what to expect. I told friends and family I was shooting for 7 hours (2pm finish) +/- an hour to give them an idea of when to expect me. Privately, I thought 6.5 hours would be a great time. Resting at 7500' the night before the race, my heart-rate felt a little elevated. I checked my pulse, 46 bpm. I don't time it regularly but that is pretty freakin slow. Seemed like all the work I'd put into training had paid off. Now it was time to execute.

I arrived in Manitou Springs, Sunday morning, about an hour early for the 7am start. I was worried about finding a parking spot but that turned out to be a non-event and I probably could have showed up 20 minutes before and still had plenty of time. My plan was to start out easy at a reasonable pace. I had heard that some people go hard the first 1.5 miles on the road to get a good place in line before it becomes single file on the lower sections of the Barr Trail. The idea of pushing the pace one mile into a potential six hour race seemed crazy to me so I lined up near the back of the pack and calmly waited to cross the start after the gun sounded.

Outside of some hiking the previous few days I had pretty much been relaxing the week before the race. My last run was on Tuesday. I planned to squeeze in one more but it never happened. Needless to say I was quite rested and itching to run. As we made our way through town and passed the railway station, I felt great. An older gentleman had a stereo in the back of his truck playing the theme from 'Chariots of Fire'. As we passed he remarked that the next time we heard the song we would be almost home.

Leaving the asphalt, the path quickly narrowed and then became single file. I began to alternate running and walking, following the lead of the runners ahead of me. It was rather slow going but even at this pace the effort was significant. I kept checking my watch; first mile was 9:00, next few were between 12:00 and 15:00. This felt like a good pace and the miles began to tick by.

Once above No Name Creek, the trail flattened out some and became wide enough to easily pass. This was definitely the easiest section; I took advantage and picked up the pace a bit. I cruised through Bob's Road and Barr Camp aid stations, taking in mostly Gatorade and water along with handfuls of random snacks. Checking my watch I was still averaging well under 15:00 minute miles and I briefly contemplated the idea of a sub 6 hour finish. And then reality set in.

At about 9 miles (~11000') my stomach started to go south and my head began to throb until I thought it was going to explode. It was better when I slowed down and so I did. Running turned into a run-walk, then a fast walk, then a slower walk. Whatever was necessary just to keep moving forward. I'm sorry to say there was absolutely no running in the last two miles to the summit. Around this time runners who had already made the turn began to fly by on their way back to town. I couldn't believe how quickly they were moving down the trail.

At some point, spectators and volunteers began to appear on the rocks along the trail. I remember clearly a volunteer saying, 'welcome to the 16 Golden Stairs'. More like 16 switchbacks! The last mile was something like 28:00 and I hit the turn around in 3:51:00. Still under my original goal of 4 hours but I was a bit disappointed I had slowed down so much in the last few miles. I think I was really feeling the altitude because I got a bit emotional about reaching the top. I remember thinking it was silly because I still had so far left to go.

A few family members were there and I yelled to them my revised estimated finishing time of 'one-thirty'. I yelled it several times until they gave me the thumbs up and then I was gone. I didn't want to spend another minute on the top of that mountain. Unbeknownst to me one-thirty had somehow been interpreted as an hour and a half. This immediately spread via text to friends and family who now rushed to get ready at the finish for my unexpectedly early arrival. I'm glad my family has such faith in me but an hour and a half would have put me in the top five times for the descent. Needless to say they would spend quite a while at the finish looking for me and wondering what happened.
Back on the top of the mountain I eagerly attempted to pick up the pace, figuring I would make up some of the time I felt like I'd given away. Unfortunately, it's true what they say; the descent is definitely not free. Mostly I struggled with nausea but my head was pounding and the stream of runners still ascending also clogged the trail. I got passed by a good number of people in this section which made it clear that I was missing the opportunity to gain time. I tried but each time my stomach would revolt. So I continued to churn out 15:00 miles, going downhill! All the while regretting telling my family I would be earlier than expected.

As I approached A-Frame aid station and 10 miles to go, I decided to eat a caffeinated gel. I've found in other long races that a little caffeine actually seems to settle my stomach. I was hoping it would do the trick this time, otherwise this was going to be a very long descent. A mile beyond A-Frame and I started to feel worlds better. The decreasing altitude probably contributed but regardless, I took advantage and started to descend like I knew I could. 15 minute miles became 12 minutes and then 10. I began to claw back the time I felt I'd lost.

It was around this time that I neglected to pick up my foot to clear a root and did a complete wipe-out. Although it was a warm day and I'm generally a warm runner, I had refused to remove my light gloves knowing that they might save me if I did indeed take a fall. Now, that decision really paid off. I caught myself fully on both hands and only lightly scraped my left leg. My palms began to sting almost immediately but I figured there wasn't much point in checking the damage so I didn't bother to look. Instead I dusted myself off and set out again, quickly recovering my previous pace with the aid of some added adrenaline. I ended up covering the last six miles in 51 minutes. Quite an unusual experience to run such a long race and feel stronger and stronger as you approach the finish.

True to his word, 'Chariots of Fire' was still blaring as I hit the asphalt and really started to pour on the speed. I finished up with a 6:56 last mile and nearly ran right into the medical tent. I immediately had the overwhelming urge to vomit and was hovering over the nearest trash can until a volunteer said if I didn't need medical I needed to make room for those that did.

It looked like a MASH unit in there. I recognized a woman I'd seen earlier in the race lying down with blood all over her shirt. It was at this point I remembered my own fall. I slowly peeled off my gloves to find...not a scratch; gloves had worked like a charm.

I made up enough time on lower section to finish in 6:20:25; 198th overall and 10 minutes faster than I was hoping for. Due to the mix up at the summit everyone else was expecting me almost an hour earlier but thankfully they stuck it out and it was amazing to have so much support waiting for me at the finish. Not sure what's after this. Nothing much on my calendar other than a local cross country series this fall. No doubt I'll be looking for another challenge before long. I'm excited to see where running will take me next.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

NJ Ultra Festival 100 Miles

Could I run 100 miles?

This was a thought that began to take shape as I ran the 100k at the 2011 NJ Ultra Festival. At the time I was only a few months removed from my first marathon. But sharing the same course with the 100 mile runners got me to thinking maybe I could finish 100 miles as well.

Throughout 2011 I trained hard and ran a pair of fall marathons but then slacked through the holidays before finally pulling the trigger and registering for the 100 mile event before the price increase on Jan 1st. That left me a scant 13 weeks to build from my marathon base.

I drew up what felt like a very aggressive training plan culminating in three consecutive 50+ mile weekends. During my final long run, three weeks out, I developed a sharp pain in my calf. This was on top of several nagging foot and shin pains which made me think I was right on the edge of injury. Basically I felt like I had done as many miles as my body would allow and if it wasn’t enough at least I wouldn’t have any regrets about not training more. With a few weeks of easy running I was feeling 100% going into race weekend.

The week before the race was pretty hectic so I planned to pick up my bib on Saturday before the 7:00 start. I figured I would have plenty of time; the race was only about an hour away so I set my alarm for 4:30. At least I thought I set the alarm. I had never been late to a race in my life. But at 6:15 my father, who had driven in from out of state, called me. The conversation went something like this:

Dad: Where are you? I found the start building but I don’t see you.
Me: Um, I’m still at home. What the hell happened? See if you can pick up my bid! Tell them I’ll be late and can I still start.

A few minutes later he confirmed the super cool RD said I was still good to start and they would just clock me with the rest of the field at 7:00. By 8:15 I was in the parking lot pinning on my bid and ready to get to work.

The 2012 Ultra Festival had a variety of distances, marathon, 50k, 50 mile, 100k, 100 mile all taking place on the same 10 mile course in and around the Sussex County Fair Grounds. The route consisted of an initial loop along a paved service road. Then two out and back legs on a trail that followed an old gas line. The trail was pretty soft even with the dry winter; there were a few muddy sections and a flooded area that required stepping on rocks to avoid the standing water. Forecast was for a high around 60F with a low in the 40s and possibly rain overnight.

As I hit the first trail section I began to pass runners going the other direction. A friend from work was running the 50k and it wasn’t long before we crossed paths. I estimated he was a few miles ahead of me and I made the questionable decision to see if I could catch up so we could run together.

My goal for the race was first and foremost to finish. But I figured barring injury I could probably run between 20 and 24 hours, well under the 29 hour time limit even starting an hour late. But trying to catch a 50k runner caused me to put in several 8-9 minute miles, much faster than the 11-12 minutes I was planning for the first half of the race.

I eventually caught and unknowingly passed my friend around mile 15. He flagged me down at the next aid station and from then on we ran a very easy pace as the miles seemed to float by unnoticed. I went through 25 miles in 4.5 hours (about 5.5 hours official time) which I knew was wholly unsustainable. But I was feeling great and figured I would put in as many good miles as I could while I still had fresh legs.

After three laps my friend was done with his 50k and he wished me luck on the rest of my race. I was expecting a bit of a letdown with my running partner departed but it wasn't bad. Because of the out and back nature of the course I was able to see my father four times on each lap. That plus the incredible volunteers at the aid stations meant I was never more than 30 minutes without an emotional lift.

I finished 50 miles in about 10 hours and still felt pretty good; a few minor aches and pains and a hot spot on my left heel but nothing serious. But by 60 miles my stomach was not feeling so great. I was carrying a quart bottle of Heed and grazing liberally at each aid station but now I was feeling pretty sick to my stomach. A bathroom break and sitting down to drain my heal / change socks didn’t help much. I went through 100k almost an hour faster than last year but the stomach problems were definitely taking a toll on my pace.

It was full on dark at this point and my spirits were pretty low. Quite depressed as I felt strong but every time I tried to pick up the pace a wave of nausea would hit me. I did a lot of walking on that seventh lap, my slowest 10 miles of the entire race, but I knew if I could just get the distance down to less than a marathon I would finish. 26 miles was a distance I could easily wrap my head around as I would finally be in familiar territory.

Eventually, the stomach issues eased. I started drinking ginger ale at every aid station. I’m not sure if that helped but it didn’t seem to make it any worse. I was able to do a lot more running on lap eight finishing almost 30 minutes faster than I had the previous 10 miles. But now that my stomach was under control I started to fade physically. My running pace became my walking pace and my walking pace felt like a crawl. I forced myself to keep running a fair amount. Each time my legs would respond but without much speed.

On lap nine I finally fell off the rocks into the water hazard. This was an area I had skipped across earlier in the day but now I felt like I had as much coordination as if I was drunk. Luckily the water was all of a few inches deep and resulted only in soaked feet. At that point I couldn’t have cared less.

Crossing over the timing mat to begin my last lap I confirmed the 24 hour speedster deadline, I had almost 3.5 hours. I could probably walk the entire thing and still make it. But I wanted to run. I wanted it to be over. When I reached the trail section I noticed I was having trouble making out the rocks along the route. At first I panicked thinking my headlight was going out. But then I realized it was my eyes that were having trouble focusing. I took more care but continued to shuffle along as quickly as possible.

As I approached the last mile I decided I was going to start running and not stop until I crossed the finish line. That last mile took 14 minutes including an all-out sprint for the final few hundred feet. As I flopped down onto the nearest chair at the finish several people crowded around asking what I wanted, could they get me anything? The question seemed hilarious because all I wanted was to sit.

My official time was 23:18 and 22:04 by my watch. Not sure if or when I’ll attempt another 100 miles but it was definitely an amazing experience.