Thursday, July 30, 2015

Grand Mesa 100

After having such a great race at the Black Hills 50 I went into this race with a ton of confidence. I think that confidence may have blinded me from a lessons learned long ago:

respect the distance

take care of your feet

With that said, I do think that there was something not quite right with me on this day. I had been feeling a little sluggish for the week or so leading up the race. I was chalking it up as the common lethargy felt during a taper, but the stomach issues I had early on now make me think something else was contributing to my not feeling 100%.
Waiting to start

The race starts with the Crag's Crest loop. This is the high point of the course and the entire mesa for both elevation and scenery. You can see everything around for miles and running it just after sunrise, the golden hour, made it very special. It is classic Colorado with forests and lakes on the lower section leading up to a pure exposed rock ridge line with scree fields below. I stopped to take a picture, but like all my pictures from the day they can't do the experience of being there justice.

Top  of Crag's Crest

After passing back through the start/finish area we headed up to Mesa Top. This is where I got a taste of what really makes this course so hard. Many of these trails are rarely used and we basically end up crossing fields by just following the course markings ahead. You need to watch every foot step because there is no level ground, but since there is no level ground to lead you keeping your eyes up to see the next marking is just as important. This was a short section of this and it was early so it was kind of fun to navigate, but later in the day it became annoying and at night it was just a slog. With that out of the way some of the nicest trail on the course was the gradual downhill to Flowing Park. This section was fairly well maintained so easy to follow. It wound through groves of trees opening to fields on the right and the edge of the mesa to the left.

From Indian Point
Next up was the Flowing Park loop which was the first long section without crew access and only limited aid about half way through. I loaded up with water and fuel and headed out. At this point I was trailing the two leaders and with my stomach issues didn't hold much hope of catching them so I settled in with some of the 50 mile racers. This section was similar to the last, but less well traveled so a little rougher. At one point on the of the 50 milers started coming back to me, not that I was catching up to him, he was running towards me. There were some cattle ahead and he said that they were chasing him. I could see them looking at us and they didn't look happy. We stuck together and made a wide berth through the field to the left and sure enough the cattle kept turning to face us. We eventually made our way past them and found the trail again several hundred yards ahead. Indian Point was at the far point of this loop and was probably the second best sight of the day with a view of the entire valley to the North of the mesa.

Coming in to Carson Lake Aid Station

After getting back to Flowing Park Aid station we left all the 50 milers to head down to Carson Lake. This is where my spirits plunged for the first time. This was also another section where there were significant lengths of just trying to navigate to the next marker. I'm sure it was beautiful countryside, but I was tired and grumpy and wanted to get this over with. I finally made it to Carson Lake where I took a good long break to prepare for the crux of the race that was to come next.
Grand Mesa is all right around 10,000' of elevation, but the Kanah Creek Aid station was at the base of the mesa 9 miles away and 4,000' below and I'd be going down at the hottest part of the day. At least this is the kind of thing that I really enjoy. It was however not your typical descent. Nine miles downhill should never take me more than 90 minutes, but split times from previous years were all closer to 2 hours. Sure enough after a long, rocky, and over grown descent with several stream crossings I logged a time of 2 hours. I was told here that the leader, Patrick O'Neil, was about an hour ahead, but that the second place runner and current course record holder, Jeremy Bradford, had just left. That got me excited. I'm very competitive and love to race and I thought that I was done racing for the day, but now I had something to shoot for. I did spend some time in the aid station drinking some ice water, filling my pack, and getting my Kool Tie moistened. I left that aid station ready for the best power hike of my life. Since we had just come down 4,000' and the race was supposed to be ON Grand Mesa it meant that this section took us right back up, but it was a different trail and this one was only 5.5 miles to the top which meant it was going to be steep, but again I like that kind of thing. I was a little surprised when during the first 2 miles of this section there were enough flat sections that I did quite a bit of running. That just meant the rest was going to be that much steeper. I passed a creek at about 2.5 miles in and I noticed a couple of water bottle sitting next to the bridge, when I looked towards the creek I saw Jeremy in the middle of the creek with his head completely submerged. I thought about stopping, but I was on a mission at this point and didn't want to lose my rhythm so I pressed on. It did start to get steeper after that point and I noticed a real change in my body when I hit 8,000'. This is when I realized just how much the high altitude of this race was affecting me. That slowed me a little, but didn't change my resolve. I wasn't going to break any records for the course overall, but I wanted to give it my all on this climb. I was so happy to make it to the top and I think that I even surprised Kasey. I had been so down when I last saw her and warned her that this section may take 6 hours or more. It turned out to be little over 4 hours.
At the top of the 4,000' climb. Happy as can be!

At this point I realized that my feet were trashed. I had gone through some water before the descent and with a couple of stream crossing and all the rocks on the descent I had built some pretty nasty blisters. So, I decided it was time to switch shoes. I put on my super cushy Altra Olympus and floated down the road to the Land's End aid station.
Coming into Lands End Aid Station

After Land's End it was a seven mile stretch down a dirt road to Anderson Lakes. I started out running, but my stomach started turning again and was reduced to a walk for most of this stretch. The shoe switch was good, but the damage had been done and my feet were still hurting. I was waiting for Jeremy to catch me on this stretch, but I think that he was having as many problems as me at this point so I was all alone. I made it to Anderson Lakes ready to quit, but determined not to. This is where I discovered the magic of potato soup. I had gagged on gel along the last stretch so I knew I needed to find a new fuel source if I was going to be able to keep going. They offered the potato soup and I figured I'd try it.
Coming in to Anderson Lakes Aid Station

I left that aid station wondering how difficult it was going to be to just keep going as it began to get dark, then after crossing another field and cursing it out I came to the rocky descent to Mesa Lakes and something just came to life in me. It wasn't my best descent by any stretch of the imagination, but I did feel more alive and when I hit the nicely groomed trails that wrapped around the lakes I started to really run again. My legs were tired and my feet were sore, but I was moving and that felt good. I made it around to the road that led up to the next aid station feeling great, but then the road turned up just enough and my energy was sapped. It was a long grind, but I finally made it and I now had a pacer. Kasey and I were a little worried that Rob hadn't made it to Anderson Lakes and we had no cell signal to even try to reach him. Kasey rushed back to camp while I was out and she had found him there and got him to Aspen Grove just in time to meet me. That was good because this next section turned out to be more difficult than I had expected it to be and it was now fully dark.
Happy to get some more potato soup and a pacer

It was a very technical and rocky ascent out of the aid station and then across another field. Now that it was dark the reflectors marking the course were our only guide. Most of the time it was just a matter of looking ahead at the line of reflectors in the distance, but when we would reach the last one we would have to scan around the field to see where the course turned. Rob guided me through this section and the next two for a total of about 16 miles, probably a little more in reality because we did take the long way back to Carson Lake. Each time we made it to an aid station I'd grab a seat and ask for potato soup. The soup would bring me back to life after each section wore me down. I got into a rhythm of just following Rob, then eating soup. I didn't have a clue as to what time it was all night long.
Loving my soup and Coke!

When we made it back to Flowing Park I only had 12.5 miles to go so Kasey and Rob decided it was time for them to switch roles. Kasey would guide me the rest of the way. This was probably a good thing because this next section was 9 miles before we would see another aid station and that was longer than I could go without soup and my feet were really starting to get painful now so the complaining really ramped up. I did my best to not complain too much to Rob since he had stepped up at the last minute to help me out here and I didn't want to subject anyone to my complaining, but at least I knew that Kasey could take it from me. I had to take one short break along this 9 mile section. It was my first rest break outside of an aid station. It is hard to put into words what this part of the race felt like. It was painful, but I was also on auto pilot and moving felt so natural. I recognized sections of this from the previous morning, but couldn't remember how far it was from the aid station. When I thought I couldn't take it any more we heard some cars in the distance and knew we had to be close. We had been told that this aid station would only have water due to a shortage of volunteers, but to my surprise they had food and cooked me some more miracle potato soup. While at this aid station the sun began to rise and I realized how long I had been out there.
Happy to have made it 9 more miles, but worried about the next 3.3

I couldn't believe that I hadn't been passed by anybody with all the walking I was doing, but I guess the course took its toll on everybody. Jeremy who was behind me had dropped out and the next person behind him was John Paul Ogden whom I had seen at my second time at Anderson Lakes as he was heading out for the loop I had just finished. With the sun now up and only 3.3 miles to the finish I put in a hard charge of power hiking to get this over with. I crossed the finish line just before 7am and was handed my finishers medal, my 100 mile belt buckle, and my second place plaque. In the end only 8 of the 18 starters would eventually finish.
Happy to be done!
In the end I am happy to have had this experience. Most people choose not to take something like this on, and they are probably smart, but this is something that I have wanted to try for a long time now. When I was going through cancer treatment I wasn't sure that I'd ever be able to. It took awhile to recover from my surgery to remove the last of my cancer, but once I realized that I was back to normal I knew this was something I need to do while I was able.

The other reasons that I do this is in hopes of inspiring others to make the most of the lives that they have and hopefully to get a few donations to Lazarex so that others with cancer will have access to clinical trials and may have a chance to live their lives as well. If you feel so inclined please donate by clicking the link on the top right of this page or share my story with others that may be able to donate.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Black Hills Endurance 50

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of running my first 50 mile race in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Prior to the race I had my doubts about being able to call this a pleasure as running a new distance is always a difficult thing to do. How do I pace it? Do I have the musculoskeletal endurance to keep going the whole way? Can I maintain my fueling strategy that long? The race was hard and the distance took its toll on my legs, but I was able to execute as well as I could have expected and was able to hold on for a 2nd place overall finish in 8:47:10.
One of Kasey's views on her way to meet me.
The morning started out like all other races, with my body and mind full of nerves. The air was cool, but ready to warm up as soon as the sun rose. The race was point to point and a bus shuttle was provided from the finish area to the start south of Sturgis, deep in the Black Hills. Luckily I had my wife, Kasey, there to support me all day so she drove me up before the bus. That turned out to be a good idea because there were limited bathrooms available for the obligatory pre race bowel evacuation. We realized how much of a tradition this is when the busses arrived and the people streamed off straight to the bathrooms in a nice orderly line. Eventually the line subsided and the race director called us to the start line. 
Starting on the road.
After a few basic instructions, we were sent on our way. We had a short stint on the road to let the field thin out before hitting the single track that took us around the lake and straight up our first climb into the forest. I wanted to start slow, but I could see the thick forest that we'd be running in to and knew the course would be narrow so I didn't want to get caught too far back in the pack. I settled into the second spot behind a young kid that looked like his last race was a high school cross-country race. I would later learn this was a 17 year old David Hedges from Chicago. After a few minutes I checked my heart rate and it was at least 15 beats per minute faster than I wanted to see in the early miles of my race, but I was on a steep climb and my breathing and legs both felt good so I went with it knowing that I needed to re-check myself once the terrain leveled out. When we finally hit the top and started down the other side of the hill I checked my heart rate and it was still high. I have run hard efforts downhill in training many times and knew that this high of a heart rate never happens so I knew that this must be a race day anomaly and threw out the plan to use heart rate as a measure of pace and decided to just run by feel. A few miles in David took the wrong fork at a confusing intersection. I questioned him on his choice and then a runner right behind us confirmed that he believed the other fork was the correct one. In that shuffle I somehow ended up in the front of the pack. I really didn't want to be in the lead this early, but went with it. After a few minutes David asked to pass and I was happy to oblige. I followed him to the first aid station where I was able to see that there was still a pack of at least 4 other runners right behind us. This gave me some confidence that I wasn't going out way to hard for a 50 mile race.

Coming in to the first aid station
After that aid station I decided to let David go, he was still running strong and I felt that I was pushing my limits trying to keep him in sight. As I reached a flat spot after the climb out of the aid station I settled into a comfortable pace with a couple of other guys. I met Jim Ellis and found out that he lives in Littleton, just a few miles south of me. He, Greg Loos, a local to South Dakota, and I chatted for a few miles. Later on coming up a slight climb I was surprised to see David wandering around, he had lost the course and was looking for markers. I was pretty sure that I was on the right trail so I told him to go straight ahead and a few feet up we saw a marker to confirm we were on the right track. I was feeling good and the terrain was smooth so I settled in behind him. I stayed with him for awhile dropping the rest behind me, but eventually decided that I was pushing too hard to match his pace so I let him go again.
Finishing a bottle to get a refill at aid #2
Now I was alone and just thinking about holding on. I still felt good, but how long would that last and how close was the pack behind me? All I could do at this point was stick to my plan and run my own race, which is the way it should be. I was alternating between taking a bottle with 2 scoops of UCAN and taking a Clif Organic Energy Food for my fuel. All the while sucking on water from my Nathan VaporAir pack and trying to remember to take a SaltStick cap every 20 minutes. That plan kept working hour after hour. According to my Garmin I passed the half way point in about 4 hours, which was right on pace for my 'A' goal of 8 hours.
Somewhere after the aid station at mile 33 I began to feels some chinks in my armor. I had forgotten to refill my supply of SaltStick caps so I ran out not far into this leg. This is where I first noticed it starting to get hot and I was feeling some fatigue setting in. I was now into new territory having only once run further and that was many years ago on a flat course. More importantly it was the longest time I have ever run in a single stint. I kept looking for the next aid station hoping it would be around the next corner. I finally made it to that aid station which did not have crew access so I didn't have Kasey to cheer me on, but at least I got a fresh supply of water and some ice in my hat. The wonderful aid station volunteers sent me on my way and I was just looking forward to seeing Kasey again at the last aid station.
Coming in to aid at mile 33
On the last big descent that would take us out of the forest I was really having problems with my quads and was nearly walking the downhills. I made it to the bottom as the scenery changed from trees all around to wide open fields with the sun shining down. I was able to jog on this flat section and got a big surge of energy when I saw that final aid station. I think that my mind was pretty clouded at that point thinking that the final five miles would be like a victory lap. Shortly after the aid station we hit the hill known as "Bitch Pitch" a short, but very steep climb. I was fine with the climb as it allowed me to power hike which is less stress on my sore quads. The problems returned with the downs on the other side. I kept pushing my body as much as I could knowing that I was still in second place and didn't know how far back any other runners were. The heat did start to get to me and I ended up walking quite a bit on the bike path in the final mile to the finish. As soon as I saw Kasey waiting for me at the finish I began to run again making one final push to look good for the waiting crowds. I was so happy to be done and just lied down on the grass to take it all in.
So happy to be done!