Sunday, July 10, 2011

Dances with Dirt 50 Mile Ultra: Some days your the bug

So bottom line up front I failed to accomplish my goal of completing a 50 mile ultramarathon. However like with everything I do I have a story. This weekend started Friday night when my support team assembled at the hotel in Lodi, Wi. I just want to say that those who came out to help me in my attempt were the absolute best support team ever,second to none. They did a better job during the race with encouragement and nourishment than the people actually conducting the race. Thanks Deborah,Matt,Jade,Tarrah,Dan,Casey and Jay,you guys made it fun.

So Friday myself and my brother Matt drove the 26 miles to the race start and picked up my race packet,number and timing chip. We also wanted to see how long it would take to get there. We determined based on our recon that we would have to leave the hotel at 0400 for the 0530 start of the race. Morning for some of the teenage elements of my team was going to come early. After returning we drove around looking for somewhere to feed the crew. Our choices were limited but we finally found a pizza place in a small town about 15 miles away. It was pretty good pizza and cheap enough. Upon returning to the hotel I laid out all my equipment and hit the rack at about 9 pm. I didn't have any trouble falling asleep and actually woke up at 0315 the next morning. I loaded everything in the van and then woke the others up. They all got up with a very minimum of griping which is always good when dealing with teenagers. Did I mention they were awesome? My sister Deborah arrived from Madison at 0400 and we were off to the race location.

The start/finish line was lit up with Christmas lights on our arrival. It was still dark but the sun rose soon enough as we waited for the race to start. I did all my pre-race preparations, attached my number and timing chip,hydrated, used the porto potty, and applied the pre race vaseline on likely chaffing spots. At about 0525 the call to the start was made and a 100 plus runners moved into position. Both the 50 mile and 50 kilometer (31 miles) ultras were starting at 0530 with the marathon (26.2 miles), half marathon (13.1 miles), and 10 kilometer (6.2 miles) starting between 0630 and 0800. We would all be running on portions of the same course so during the day I would see runners in all the races. I lined myself up at the back and waited for the gun to sound.

When the race started I hit the timer on my watch and my Garmin and started jogging forward, as usual at race start there was an accordian effect as we in the back had to wait for all those in the front to sort themselves out. I wasn't worried as it was going to be a long day and a lot of miles, I had the next 13 hours to stretch my legs. The course initially took us up the ski slopes of the resort the start/finish line was located at. I got a taste of how the day would be and how rough the terrain on this course would be, as for the next 4.5 miles I ran/walked up double black diamond ski slopes and through the woods connecting them. As we turned to head back down the footing was treachourous. The course ran straight down the face of a ski hill that had 2 foot high summer weeds growing on it. A path of sorts had been made as the runners followed the pink ribbons marking the course. By the time I hit this section the grass had been crushed down over the underlying rocks which made for very slippery footing. All I could think off was utilizing the "mountain walking" techniques I had learned in Alaska. I concentrated on making full contact with the entire sole of my foot with each step to create the friction necessary to keep me from busting my ass. The trail leveled out relative to what we had just been through and we hit the first aid station. My awesome team refilled my water bottles and I was ready to head out. I was trying to stay ahead of the hydration as it was already over 80 degrees with high humidity. My shirt and shorts were wringing wet with sweat even after this first section. The first section took me right about an hour to complete.

The next section headed us through a swampy area and then started climbing again. As I would find through much of the course there was no actual "trail." The lead runners made the trail as we ran through the woods, over logs, around head sized rocks, stepping over roots, always following the pink ribbons that denoted the Ultra route. The other races had other colors that sometimes shared our route and sometimes not. The route continued to climb and the elevation change was serious enough that I felt my ears pop a few times on the way up. My Garmin was trying to track the mileage but the foliage was messing with it and it lost signal quite a few times. As we reached the top of the ridge there was a small aid station with water at a curve in the trail. It was literally in the middle of the woods and I thanked the two volunteers manning it as I refilled my water bottles. Besides drinking water/gatorade I also was trying to eat a Clif bar or some Power shots every 30 minutes. I was carrying this food in a small fanny pack while my water bottle were on my hands attached with a special harness.
The course actually flattened out at this point as we ran along the ridgeline to the next check point. I ran most of this section as I had been forced to walk/run on most of the first two sections. I wasn't worried about this however as I knew that would happen on a race of this distance. The goal during an ultra is to always move forward. 

At the 11 mile mark we hit the next aid staion and my team had some Gatorade and a few peanut butter sandwiches for me. I was still feeling pretty good and ate and drank for a quick break. I gave them my useless Garmin then I was off again to the next check point. The course still stayed relatively flat and even slightly down hill as we headed towards the shore of Devil's Lake itself. I was starting to get passed by runners quite regularly now as all the routes converged at this point. I looked at the color of their numbers howevr and could see I was holding my own against the other ultra runners and I must have been somewhere mid-pack. I had tripped over countless roots and rocks with both feet during the race so far but it was during this section that I hit a hidden rock with my right big toe so hard it brought tears to my eyes. I also cut my knee climbing over a log. As I hit the lakeshore aid station at mile 14 I stopped once again to refill my bottles. Doing some quick mental math I figured I was about 15 minutes ahead of the pace I needed to make the 25 mile cutoff time. As a safety measure the race organizers had set a time of 6.5 hours to complete the first 25 miles of the race. Those attempting the 50 miler that missed this time would be directed to finish the shorter 50 kilometer race instead. This was a reasonable precaution to keep from looking for people in the woods over all creation when it started getting dark.

Little did I know that the real race for me had just started. About a mile or so down the trail from the aid station we encountered a camping area we had to run though. It was at this point I got a little off trail missing a turn and running about 100 meters before I realized my mistake. I looked back and saw another runner making the turn so I headed back and got on the right route. We actually hit some paved roads for a short distance and then we encountered the first of what was to be two serious, serious elevation changes. The trail went almost straight up the side of this bluff with huge rocks placed as steps. I looked at the map later and this climb looked to be about 1000 meters of lung searing pain. Here is where my race plan started to unravel. As I started climbing my right hamstring started cramping and then my left as well. I tried to move off the side of the trail and try to stretch them out. I continued to down some water and walk them out but my pace had slowed considerably. Another runner offered me some electrolyte tabs and they helped alot. In 10 minutes or so I was feeling back to normal. We continued to climb and a runner I would pass and be passed by for the next 15 miles or so remarked how this reminded him of the "Golden Steps" at the top of Barr Trail on Pike's Peak. Having been on that trail myself we talked about it for a while. He had actually run the Pike's Peak Marathon on a previous occasion. Finally we reached the top and I started running the downhills and flats and walking the up hills as the trail followed the countour of the ridgeline.

At 17 miles we hit the aid station farthest away from the start. My support team was on the ball and once again refilled my Gatorade. I ate a PBJ, a banana and changed my socks. When I took my shoes off my feet were literally pruning from sweat. I noticed that both my big toenails had blood underneath from the tripping and the constant up and down pounding.The one on the right based on my experience was a definite goner and probably the left one as well. My team asked me how I was doing as they cleaned the cut on my left knee and applied some antiseptic spray. I admitted to them I was starting to cramp up on the uphills and I need to increase my electrolyte intake. After about a 5 min break I headed out on the course again. I was on pace to make the cutoff by about 10 minutes.

The next section started with a 2.4 mile out and back section on a dirt road. This wasn't too bad except for the two big hills on it. At this point I was still able to run and took the downhills as an opportunity to keep up the pace. We passed back through the aid station again and then took a right through a meadow and into the woods. Shortly after that we popped out onto the lake shore and followed a 1.9 mile trail that hugged the shoreline. This was probably the beginning of the end of my hopes to finish 50 miles. The majority of the race up to this point had been in the woods and it was fairly shaded but this section was totally exposed to the sun. The trail was also a popular tourist hiking area and so it was roughly paved although uneven. The combination of the sun reflecting off the asphalt/water and having to avoid all the pedestrian traffic along this area must have sapped my energy subtly with every step. I ran the entire section but it would come back to bite me later.

Once again we hit the lake aid station at what had been the 14 mile point the first time around. Now we around 21.4 miles and I was starting to wonder if I would make the cut off time. I had about an hour to make the 3.6 miles to the halfway point. On a normal day that would have been a piece of cake but on this day on this course it was a serious consideration. So after refilling the water bottles I headed back out on the trail.

Soon enough I hit the second serious climb of the race. Another 2.2 miles of rock steps and serious pitch. And once again my legs started cramping. I continued to tell myself to move forward and eventually they worked themselves out but it caused me to lose more time. Eventually I hit the top of the bluff, we were up so high that when I looked over the edge of the trail I got the same feeling in my legs I used to get when I did a lot of rock climbing and parachuting. There were quite a few rock climbers that had anchors points set up and were rapelling down the cliff face. I asked how their day was going as I ran by and they gave me a thumbs up. I hit the highest aid station on top of this bluff at mile 23.5, as I downed water I saw that I had 25 minutes to make the 1.5 miles to the cutoff at the 25 mile point. It seemed doable as the course now headed down off the bluff. As I headed down I started cramping up again on the steeper sections. I really had to alter my stride to keep moving. I started running scenarios through my head, weighing the options on what to do if I continued on. Would I make the cutoff time? If did could I even finish the race in my condition? If I made the cutoff and continued on what was my rescue plan if I had to stop? I really struggled mentally as I continued running down the mountain. My cramps seemed to have gone for now but blisters on my feet were starting to form and all the pounding was taking its toll on them as well. My pride told me I should continue the race but my common sense told me to call it a day. This is why I love these events, pushing yourself to the limit you learn what you are made of. Doesn't really matter what the results are its the journey that counts.

Ultimately the decision was made for me, I hit the checkpoint at mile 25 in 6 hours 31 minutes 18 seconds. That was 1 minute 18 seconds too slow to continue the 50 mile course. As I checked in they informed of that in the nicest way possible, I told them thanks but it was probably for the best anyway. Well although my hopes were dashed I now had plenty of time to finish the 50 kilometer race as I had suddenly went from having 6.5 more hours to run 25 more miles to having 6.5 hours to run 6 more miles. So I totally chilled for about 10 minutes. I drank water, chatted with my support team, ate a few more sandwiches and then headed out on what had now become my last leg. I told my support team I was probably going to take a while as my focus now was off the time and was shifted to just finishing a race.

I headed back along the same fairly flat to rolling trail I had encountered on the trip out. I was still able to maintain a running pace stopping to walk the uphills. I could feel my hamstrings twinge every time I ran downhill and I really was trying to take it easy on them. Eventually I hit the steep downhill section that I had climbed on the way out. My legs were just too shaky so not wanting to take any chances and fearing I would be stuck in the middle of nowhere and have to be rescued I started walking. I probably walked the last 2 miles downhill over the rocks and roots and trees. Once it flattened out I started running again at a slow deliberate pace, I knew I was close to the finish as I started recognizing some of the terrain. I heard the music at the finish line and picked it up as best I could. I rounded the corner out of the woods and into the meadow and everyone started cheering. I threw my water bottles off my hands towards my daughter and stopped to take a picture of the clock before I crossed the finish line. The clock read 8 hours 28 minutes and 34 seconds. It had taken me roughly 2 hours to travel that last 6 miles, but it was finished. As they handed me my finishers medal they asked me my age for age group awards. I just laughed and told them my age but not to worry about it as I didn't think it would be an issue.

My official chip finishing time for the 50K was 8:27:47.9 just as a comparison to show the difficulty level of this course here are some of my other recent race times. I finished a previous 50K last December during a blizzard here in Iowa in 7:21:42 on a much flatter course. In May I finished the Rockford Marathon (26.2 miles) in 4:29:50. What did I learn? Well I learned that some days your the bug and some days your the windshield. I learned next time I attempt his race I need to do more hill work. And last but most important I need to somehow get ahead of this cramping issue. I have had this issue on both Ultras I have done. I am taking a few weeks off from running to heal up. I am going to concentrate on riding my mountain bike and do some MTB races at the end of the month. As I write this my legs are extremely sore but I am already thinking ahead to my next 50 mile attempt. I will accomplish this distance before I turn 50 years old. I have 2.2 years to make it happen.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Alliant Energy/CVRA Races 5K

So for something like the 15th time I ran the Alliant Energy 4th of July  5K. I haven't missed this race much in the last 20 years. I even managed to make it most years I was in the military. The 8K race is the premiere road race in the area with quite a few professional runners that show up for the prize money. I usually run the non competitive 5K however. I don't need the money.

This year the course changed due to some construction in the downtown area. Instead of a out and back loop from the downtown area it was an out and back loop from the Little Bohemia area of town that is south of the downtown area proper. This was good as it made the course over all flatter and faster, however it was bad because the course itself was more remote and the amount of spectators and spectacle was significantly diminished this year.

So I got up this morning put on my running togs and drove down and parked in the parking lot at work. I did this for two reasons, first I knew parking would be at a premium and second I wanted to get some warm up miles in before the race. So after parking I jogged the .75 miles to the start outside the Chrome Horse saloon. The Chrome Horse is a local establishment that is becoming somewhat of a sponsor for local sporting events. They sponsored the New Bo Fest Half Marathon last year and also the local mountain bike club (Linn Area Mountain Bike Association) has their board meetings there. Once there I saw a huge crowd of people waiting for the 8K racers to finish so the 5K could start. I guess the race organizers had counted on everybody running at least a 12-14 minutes pace for the 8K. This was not to be and even though the 8K had started at 0700 and the 5K was slated for 0815 we didn't actually toe the line until closer to 0830. So directly after the National Anthem we were given the word to move up to the start line. In an unusual move for me I decided to start closer to the front. In the past I have always hung out in the back and then once the race started picked people off. However I had been thinking that this was causing me unnecessary delays in the initial miles of the race and kept me from hitting my goal pace of 24 minutes.So I decided to head up front to see what would happen.

When the starting gun sounded I took off at a comfortable but steady pace. We ran a few blocks east before turning right and heading south along the Cedar River. Once we made the turn we were headed slightly up hill and I was passing people as I usually do heading uphill. As we crested the hill we started a long downhill section and I concentrated on lengthening my stride and taking advantage of gravity. This section was probably .5-.75 of a mile then we bore slightly to the right and dumped out on to the flat river road. This was also the first water stop and the one mile mark. At the one mile mark I had run a 07:37 minute first mile which was faster than I had run the first mile in a few years. Maybe my strategy was working?

As we headed towards the turn around I settled into a comfortable rhythm. I tried to breath evenly and not let the few people who passed me affect my own race plan. I also passed a few people and was in the top third of the pack as we made the u-turn at the halfway point. I made the halfway mark in 11:26. I was on pace for a sub 24 minute 5K and things were going to plan.

As we headed back along the course I could see the rest of the racers stretched out along the mile or so of the course that I could see. Somehow even though it was exactly the same distance seeing all those people made the return trip seem longer. I was starting to breathe a little labored and I could feel my pace slowing even as I tried to hold it steady. I hit the railroad tracks at the 2 mile point and started up the long uphill which had previously been the downhill, funny how that works. I had forgotten to look at my watch at the 2 mile mark but about halfway up the hill I looked and I was at 18 minutes.

I kept chugging up the hill not quite sure if I was slowing or it was an illusion due to the effort I was putting out running uphill. At the crest we now had a short down hill before making the left hand turn back west to the finish. At the turn as I saw the finish line about .02 of a mile ahead. I looked at my watch and saw it was going to be close hitting that 24 minute goal. I didn't speed up but I tried not to slow any further and once again tried to make my foot turnover quicker. I crossed the finish line and looked down at my watch, I had missed my goal by 34 seconds!! My time of 24:34 is still the fastest 5K I have run in the last 4-5 years and I have improved my time on every consecutive 5K in the last 2 years. I know this won't last for ever but for now it feels good.

Post race I grabbed a Gatorade and banana and then jogged back to my car. Total mileage for the day was 4.87 in 39:54 which will be my long run for the week. I am tapering for the 50 Mile Ultra Marathon I will be running for charity next Saturday. More on that next week but until then check out my donation page.