Monday, May 1, 2017

Broken Competitive Drive

2017 Promise Land 50K

Image result for promise land 50k elevation profile
(Super old looking race profile from irunfar)

I was excited to come back to Promise Land this year after my wife gave me the go-ahead to abandon her for a day, leaving her alone with an infant and toddler. After 2 years of ultrarunning I can comfortably say that 50Ks really aren't my cup of tea -- I thrive on the longer slogs through the mountains, and the shorter races are just too fast. But Promise Land is a bit different. It has a hard, fun profile that can wear you down, and if I'm paying to go running through the woods I want it to be for something challenging like this.

I knew I wasn't going to have a spectacular performance this year -- GDR was only 4 weeks ago and the joys of newborn sleep deprivation were still in full swing. Then add to that the fact that race day forecasts were predicting temps approaching the 90s. Oh, and I basically reverse-tapered my way to race day and drove 4 hours in the middle of the night to get to the race start. So yeah, peak performance wasn't gonna happen. But ... my spring workouts had been going well and I was still hoping for a solid improvement over last year. I had an ambitious plan for sub-5, a 15 minute improvement over last year. It probably wasn't going to work out, though I was hoping to be within striking distance in the final miles.

(Course map. Courtesy of Keith Knipling)

When the race began I felt tired and sluggish. I was hoping to shake it out, but after nearly 15 minutes of climbing to start the race I could tell that my legs weren't as responsive as I had hoped -- remnants of GDR were still lurking in my quads. So I dialed back the effort a little and just hoped for the best. I came into the first Aid Station less than 3 miles in, about 90 seconds off pace and spot-on to last year's split. By this point I had long since given up keeping pace with anyone up front and had settled in at around 20th place.

After cresting the first major climb, my legs opened up on the rolling trails and I left myself a sliver of hope that sub-5 was still attainable. I rolled into Reed Aid Station -- the Terrapin Lollipop -- got a pleasant greeting from Clark Zealand, and then headed up to the Blue Ridge Parkway crossing. My legs again felt strained from the climbing and I resorted to hiking much more often than if my legs were fresh. Once I hit the downhill into the Sunset Fields Aid Station, my legs again opened up. The effort felt considerably easier than last year, but I was running the downhills slightly faster. I pulled into the Aid Station with a nearly identical time to last year. The main difference: I was in 9th then, and only in 15th this time around. Maybe even a 5:15 finish in this heat wouldn't make the cut for Top 10 ... ugh!

I glided down the rocky and sometimes sloppy single track to the Cornelius Aid Station at Mile 18. I love this section of trail, careening down the slopes and over creek runoff makes me feel like a kid! My downhill pace again felt more controlled and easier than last year, and it was still slightly faster. If I could just survive the final climb, the final 4 mile descent would be a blast!

Leaving the AS, I hit the 2 mile downhill stretch of road that begins the 8 mile Cornelius Loop, focusing on an easy, controlled effort. Last year, I felt like the back half of the loop would never end. I was pushing the pace beyond my abilities, trying to make up ground on runners behind me. This year, I finished the loop in a slightly faster time, feeling considerably less exhausted. I had moved up into 11th place, was slightly ahead of last year's pace, and was focused on staying strong to overtake a couple runners on the final monster climb up the falls. Running down the out-and-back to the Aid Station, I saw Leif Van Acker and not far behind him was a super old dude (and eventual GrandMaster course record holder). I was probably 1.5-2 minutes back. I wasn't sure I'd be able to catch Leif, but I knew the old dude was going down!

Heading back up the out-and-back, a couple of runners flew down, and I instantly got scared.  Just like last year ... I was on the Top 10 bubble with a chase pack right behind me. I focused on the task at hand: catching the old dude. In less than 10 minutes I passed him and secured my 10th place spot. I may not be getting sub-5 hours, but it could still be a good day!

... And then it all went to crap. My legs quickly felt tired. I had been struggling up the climbs earlier in the race, but I was hoping this 2000' climb up Apple Orchard Falls would be different -- I had pictured myself saving my legs so I could crush the ascent. Instead, I found myself walking in places I had no business walking. The rocks and constantly changing gradient were wearing me out. And then a strong runner blew by me. I was in 11th again. And that's when I gave up. I had no interest in chasing down runners; that would be too mentally exhausting. Apple Orchard Falls is my kryptonite.

I lolly-gagged the next mile of climbing. I came across Frank Gonzales spectating and he tried urging me on (but he didn't give me a hug when I asked for one ... jerk!). He said there were multiple runners just ahead of me. It didn't work. I didn't want to be competitive today. I wanted to sit down on the side of the trail and stare at a waterfall. There were a couple moments when I feigned an attempt at running. I even saw 10th place a little ahead of me, but I couldn't gauge if it was 60 seconds, 120 seconds, ...? So I just kept walking.

As I approached the final Aid Station, I could hear Dan Spearin screaming at me, trying to get me moving because there were multiple runners just ahead.

"1 minute! 1 MINUTE!"
I kept walking.

"Top 10! Black Hole Duffel! You got this, Chris!"
I kept walking.

My climbing legs weren't in it today. And even if I miracled my way down the final descent, it was highly unlikely I'd catch anyone. I'd mentally checked out over the past 30 minutes and there was nothing anyone could say or do to inject a competitive spirit back in me.

"This is where we realize I'm just not a competitive person," I proclaimed, hoping that saying it out loud would excuse me for giving up, for sealing my fate as the dreaded first loser. After getting doused with water I meandered my way up the rest of the climb and onto the the final descent.

As I neared the end of the single track before the 2.8 mile road descent, I finally saw 10th place. When I popped out on the road I counted strides and realized I was in striking distance. I've got strong downhill legs. I can do this! I dug deep again. My watch ticked off a 5:44 mile. Push Harder! 10th place was only 10 seconds ahead of me. Push Harder! I had wanted to finish this race with solid 5:30 miles. If I could do that, I'd surely snag 10th.

I rounded another bend in the road. Still 10 seconds. You can do this! My downhill legs finally felt their limits. Shots of pain radiated through my calves and hamstrings. I couldn't go any faster. Another glimpse of 10th ... 15 seconds. Another glimpse ... 20 seconds. That's it! I'm calling it! As hard as I tried, I just couldn't get my legs to turn over like I wanted. I dialed back my pace a bit and cruised along the road to the finish.

When I spied the Finish Line, I noticed I had a chance to at least beat my finishing time from last year. I ever-so-slightly kicked it up a notch and cruised in for 5:14:53. A whopping 8 second PR. And for the second time in 15 months, Horton crowned me First Loser. Afterward, looking at results, there were 2 people 1 minute up on me, Leif was 2 minutes up, and a 4th runner was 3 minutes up. And the climb up Apple Orchard Falls this year was nearly 5 minutes slower than last year ... and I wasn't content with last year's climb either. That hurts more than any physical pain. I mailed it in on the final climb and it was the difference between 11th place and probably a 7th place finish.

After the race, I soaked my legs in the nearby stream, chatted up some fellow runners, chowed down on some food, and then made the 4 hour trek back home to change some diapers. All the while, I tried convincing myself that this little jaunt in the mountains wasn't a waste of time.

Where I need to improve:
  • I can set lofty performance goals for myself, but I am not a naturally competitive person. Which is fine. Except the moment my competitive standing in a race begins to falter, I don't have the mental strength to keep pushing. I turn inward and find excuses. This has to stop.
  • I think on fresh legs my climbing would've been much better, on the order of 60-90 seconds per mile, but even then, it's not where it should be. I need to make treadmill climbs more challenging -- changing pace/grade frequently; running uphill after long, hard workouts; etc. ... And, I dunno, maybe I should figure out a way to find some time for real trail climbs someday.
  • "Race Weight" ... I definitely felt the downhill pounding in my knees. It couldn't hurt to finally shed off some of that excess weight I've never tried to get rid of.

Positive Takeaways:
  • I ran an identical time from 2016, but I did so with much less effort. The day after the race my legs felt as if I'd simply been on a hard weekend long run. My aerobic capacity is increasing!
  • I ran an identical time from 2016, despite temperatures being around 25 degrees warmer. I'd say the temps cost me in the neighborhood of 7 minutes compared to last year.
  • My downhill speed is improving.
  • Everything but the climbing was nearly spot-on for a sub-5:00 finish.

Thanks to David Horton for putting on this spectacular race. Promise Land truly is a Spring Classic. I can't wait to toe the line again next year! (and apologies for not getting Top 10 like I'd promised ... I'll make up for it at Hellgate!) Thanks to all the friendly faces on the course throughout the day, especially the Crozet/Charlottesville contingent. And most of all, thanks to my wife for letting me neglect my parenting duties for a second time this spring to go running through the woods.

Now it's time to put in a solid training block ... with lots of vert!

Monday, April 10, 2017

GDR Post-Op

Here's what all went down in the North Georgia Mountains ...

(Early Miles. Courtesy of Victor Mariano)


I signed up for the Georgia Death Race, like an idiot, after a stellar WS finish. I thought I could compete for a Golden Ticket back to the Big Show. Months of minimal and sub-standard training due to injury meant a Golden Ticket was out the window. Instead ... maybe Top 5?

Then came Baby Boy Roberts on 10MAR. Yeah, so I was supposed to drive out to Shenandoah that day and put in a solid 6-8 hours of running. Instead, the 4 weeks before GDR I scrounged up a whopping 9 hours of running ... TOTAL! At least I'd be well rested, right?!

Then I got sick the week of the race and I started feeling the weight of chronic sleep-deprivation ... so, maybe Top 10?

Let's just lay it all out on the table:  I abandoned my wife, 3 year-old daughter, and newborn son to go running in the woods, 11 hours away from home ... somebody deserves Husband of the Year!

After the way-too-long sleepy drive from DC to GA, I went to the pre-race meeting and then found a parking spot near the finish of the race to try and get some shut-eye in my SUV ... which didn't work ... go figure! I "woke up" just before 2am to get ready and catch the shuttle from the finish to the start. It was warm enough for shorts and a t-shirt. Nevertheless, I crammed my space blanket, thermal top, and jacket into my pack, and cursed Sean Blanton excessively. I was hoping the long 90+ minute drive would give me opportunity for some shut-eye, but sports talk radio was blaring in the bus and I couldn't tune it out.

... I. AM. SO. TIRED!

In the shelter by the Start, I chatted up the legendary Pam Smith for awhile. I tried to play it cool, but I was secretly #fangirling so hard inside. Come what may on the course today, I got to hang out with Pam Freakin Smith!

(Obligatory Elevation Profile. Courtesy of Run Bum)

Early Miles

At 5am we started and the pace was ... pedestrian. I cruised along, chatting up Bob Shebest and catching up with Aaron Saft. Then they bounded ahead of me...

Something feels off ... this pace shouldn't feel so straining ...

Shit, I'm going the wrong way! Half-way up the biggest climb of the course, Coose Bald, I came upon a trail intersection. I stopped for a second and didn't see any streamers, reflectors, or flashers, so I went what felt closest to straight through, just like Sean recommended. A few minutes later I looked back and saw headlamps behind me, but also above. I'd clearly made the wrong choice so I hauled ass back down the trail so I could deal with a couple miles of bounding through runners.

I quickly caught up to Dominic Layfield and another runner ... and then we made a wrong turn ... again! Damn it, Run Bum, mark your intersections and spurs better!

"That's Dominic Layfield back there. He's totally sandbagging it right now. He should be way ahead of us." -- some random runner that doesn't understand how to pace longer races.

"Is that a famous person in front of me?!"
"Nope, I don't know what you're talking about." -- Karl Meltzer
"Why are there no reflective streamers?! This is so stupid!"
"Seriously, Sean needs better markings in these early miles." -- Karl Meltzer
... You hear that, Run Bum?! Karl Meltzer just called you out!

... a little while later, after an AS stop, Karl practically leaps over me on a 10% climb, and I never catch back up to him.

At one point it was time to down my hourly gel. I reached into my shorts pocket and out came a chocolate flavored Huma gel. I immediately felt nauseous just looking at it. Great, I'm 15 miles into a 70 mile run and my body already wants to reject race nutrition. I pocketed the gel and decided to wait another half hour.

Along the Dragon's Spine section of the Duncan Ridge Trail I continued running comfortably with Layfield, shooting the breeze. He is incredibly nice and was welcome company in those early miles.

My legs feel sluggish ...

(Fun before the blown quads. Courtesy of Russ Strycharz)

The Rut

Somewhere near Mile 18, after a steep climb, my quads twinge ... then spasm ... then cramp. Two runners pass me as I stop to squat down and stretch my quads ... at MILE 18. I know they're secretly judging me!

Well SH*T! This is going to be Mountain Masochist all over again. Ugh!

Running the climbs was too painful. I couldn't maintain comfortable pace on the technical downhills. As I turned down into the 1.5mi descent to Skeenah Gap near mile 21.5, the leaders were running out ... Great, already 40minutes behind the front. Soon after, I came across Aaron, looking strong. By the time I climbed out of Skeenah I figured I was 30 minutes behind him. This was going to be an awful day ...

Along the out-and-back, I counted runners. Instead of being around 8-10th, I was 12th ... and fading quickly. As I made my way to Point Bravo and Sapling Gap (Miles 28 and 33), I continued to bleed time and get passed. I was too frustrated to look at my HR, but I'm sure it was a solid 20 beats below race effort. This had turned from a race into a painful, long, training run.

I limped down a hill and around a turn and came across ... Aaron hobbling with a burly branch. He'd overextended his leg on a downhill and tweaked his hamstring pretty bad. I walked alongside him for a few minutes. I bitched about how off I felt and how my legs had already crapped out. He maintained high spirits, cuz, well, he's a better person. Then he forced me to carry on with my day.

By the time I passed Long Creek at Mile 41, I'd gone 4 hours without running a single incline, and I was losing any remaining motivation to keep going.

... Then friggin Aliza Lapierre flew by me. It's official, I've been chick'd! Just like at Masochist. I need to avoid Aliza like the plague cuz she keeps bringing bad luck to the races we run together. This is all her fault!

At one point, I happened on a country road intersection. There were tables and chairs, and food and drink set up, and dozens of people.  It was well past noon and the sun was beating down. I was exhausted. Wait, did I forget about an Aid Station?! This is amazing! I stumbled up to the table, looking for some water and fruit. An elderly dude informed me that this was not, in fact, an aid station, but a family get-together ... the next aid station was 4 miles down the road (exactly where it was supposed to be). I lowered my head, said nothing, and stumbled off down the road. I wanted to lie down and die. I could hear the old dude in the distance, "Did you see the look on his face when I said 4 miles?! Hahaha!" ... then, suddenly, a voice ... a sweet, cheerful voice! "Would you like some water?!" A girl, about 10, had run me down and offered me an ice cold bottle of water. My GDR Trail Angel! I had plenty of liquids in my bottles but they were warm. I cracked open that sweet bottle of Kroger water and downed an ice cold gulp, and, in that moment, I immediately understood what religious people mean when they say they feel the majesty of God. I have never in my life tasted anything as amazing as that ice cold Kroger water!

After the euphoria of the Kroger water wore off, I came to the gravel road climb up Winding Stair. I tried running cuz it wasn't that steep, and it was a smooth road, but I felt sooo tired and weak. I kept trying to convince myself that it was okay to walk ... You can't be embarrassed if there's no one around to see your pathetic effort! The Kroger water was lukewarm by this point, it's healing powers long since expired.

At the top of the climb I heard cheering for the 2nd place female, Jackie Merritt.  I was officially getting steamrolled here!

Not The Worst Running I've Ever Done

As I rolled downhill on smooth gravel roads and single track, I started to feel a bit better. My legs were resigned to the fact that despite their best effort, I was going to keep on running. And so, the cramps and spasms dulled to merely a painful stiffness and throbbing. I wouldn't be setting any speed records, but I could finally start to push the effort a bit above lazy hobbling.

When Jackie passed me I tried running with her and found the pace tolerable.
... and so, for the rest of the race, we were always within a couple minutes of one another.

After we made it through Jake Bull, we turned onto the rolling country roads, pitched uphill at a meager 2% grade. This is one hell of a shock to the system! I tried running harder but "fast" in no way describes the pace I was kicking out. If this were a training run, I could be knocking these miles out at sub-7 pace, no problem. Instead, 9 minutes feels like an otherworldly achievement.

Where the hell is the climb?!

The long rolling road never seemed to end. Since Mile 18, this was the longest stretch of sustained running I'd done all day. My body was screaming for the steep climb to hurry its ass up and present itself so I could transition to a hike for a quick breather.

I managed to pull ahead of Jackie. At times I'd buckle over, hands on knees, in an about-to-hurl position from the strain of the unending miles. Each time, I'd glance through my legs to see her, upside down, running, getting closer and closer.

Finally, the f*cking climb!

I transitioned to a pattern of 1 minute run / 30 seconds hike. And I felt as strong as I'd felt all day long. I made good progress up the 1500'+ grind, muttering to myself, Green Gate, Green Gate, Green Gate! (which I demolished at States last year ... it was great having that memory, that energy, to tap into)

I neared the top. It'd been almost 10 miles of never ending running and climbing. I drained the last of my liquids. And then I came across a volunteer at an intersection who rudely informed me there was another 1.5 miles to the next aid station.

F*CK!!!!! After that herculean effort to climb Nimblewill Gap Road, I stumbled up the trail a couple hundred yards and then just started walking, dejected.

I eventually made it to the final Aid Station, just ahead of Jackie. I bumped into this guy I had run with earlier in the race. So despite having an awful day, I was going to actually pass someone! (I'd passed another guy in the previous 20 miles, but I can't quite recall where the heck that happened...) His legs seemed trashed, too. And I was clearly quicker on the flat-ish section of road we were running on. Then we hit a small climb and he blew past me. It's mostly downhill to the finish, I've got this guy!

I made a push and gapped him and Jackie. Then I put my head down and focused on building a gap through to the Falls in the last 2 miles.

The final miles went on FOREVER! Seriously it was so exhausting. The RD had changed the course so this section was about 2 miles longer than last year. ... BUT, I didn't realize that until I was well into the section. When I got to small climbs I would contemplate running, but more often than not I'd succumb to the exhaustion and hike. Each time I hiked, I looked back in fear. And then I'd hit a flat section or smooth downhill and my confidence would return.

After a billion hours of running, I finally got to the penultimate 1000' descent. Okay, you've got this! Just push through! Keep building that gap! Except ... Nope! It was too steep. And some sections were too technical. My quads protested. I couldn't get my legs to smoothly turn over.

I passed folks on leisurely strolls ... I was getting close! I passed a couple with a big dog that wasn't on a leash. A few moments later I heard and felt something right behind me. Damn it, people, control your dog! But it wasn't a dog, it was Jackie tearing ass downhill. And just like that, my spirits were crushed.

When I finally reached the bottom to begin the assault of the Amicalola Falls stairs, Jackie was way ahead of me. I should've scouted out this section of the course the day before, because I had no idea how steep the approach to the stairs really was. I was too tired and my legs were too beat up to run, and so I mostly walked roughly a half mile to the stairs. And just when I reached the stairs, I looked back and the guy I passed at the last Aid Station was right there! Damnit!!!!

Image result for amicalola falls
(So. Many. Stairs.)

As I tackled the stairs, he caught me, but we both made ground on Jackie. Every single step, I clutched and yanked on the handrail in an attempt to alleviate strain on my legs. Families gawked, some got out of the way, some didn't.

I reached the top of the 600+ stairs a few strides behind the two of them. I wanted desperately to catch them, but I also wanted to walk the final uphill yards. I was done fighting my legs. When I turned to the final 1 mile and 1000' descent, they were about 5 seconds up on me.

We turned off the 25% grade road onto steep trail again. By this time I'd caught up with Jackie, but the other guy was clearly feeling good. I thought his legs were shot! Son of a bitch!

I contemplated trying to pass Jackie, but my quads, and now my calves, were screaming with every footfall. If I passed her, I couldn't guarantee I wouldn't impede her progress on the steepest and most technical sections of trail. She was running for entry into Western States. This was her race, not mine. I backed off ever-so-slightly. My legs stopped spasming. She pulled ahead.

I tumbled down the final stretch of trail, eventually crossing the creek and finish line about 30 seconds back of Jackie and 90 back of the other guy. 14:24. It wasn't the worst time in the world, considering how poorly my day had gone -- it wasn't the day I'd hoped for, but it also wasn't the disaster I'd experienced last November at Mountain Masochist. I later discovered I'd secured 10th place male. Top 10 at a nationally competitive race when I didn't bring my A (or B) Game. I guess I can live with that! I think on a good day I could've kept pace with Layfield and Meltzer, but I won't know for sure if I really am that good of a runner until I can string together a good, healthy, sleep-filled training block.

After the race, I commisserated with Layfield, Pam Smith, and others. Then I tried to get some shut-eye before hitting the road ... I had to hurry home, there were diapers that needed changing!

(14 hours of running and all I got was this railroad spike...)

What I Liked About GDR

  • The elevation profile is amazing with lots of ups and downs
    • Race info says 20,000'+ over 68ish miles, which would put this at a gnarly ~30K of vert for a 100mile equivalent. I honestly think it's more like 17K over 72ish miles, which actually makes it more like a generic hard mountain race. But whatever. Any time you get over an 8% average gradient, you're gonna have fun!
  • There's lots of sweet, sweet single track
  • The RD threw in miles of "easy" country road after 50 miles of tough trails that make you feel like you're going insane -- this is nearly flat, I feel like I'm running a road race, but why is my pace 4 minutes slower than marathon pace?! OMG when will this ever end?! I just want to start climbing again!
  • The finishing location is at Amicalola Falls State Park, the home of the AT Approach Trail up to Springer Mountain, and an all-around beautiful place to hang out
  • Good competition
  • Long distances between aid stations at the end -- you have to earn this finish!

What I Didn't Like About GDR

  • The RD's personality is pretty much the exact opposite of mine, so the general race atmosphere got on my nerves -- "you're all gonna die", exaggerating difficulty, being bro-tacular
    • Still not sure if his Brosephus-ness is genuine or an act. I think there's some self-awareness in there, but I can't say for sure.
  • The race shirt was awful. Sport Tek -- when you want a technical fabric that feels as stiff as cardboard and itches like cheap wool, choose Sport Tek!
  • The required gear was, hands down, the STUPIDEST thing I've ever experienced in an ultramarathon. Temps were never below the 40s and they reached into the upper 70s, yet a space blanket, thermal top, and jacket were required for the entire race! It's the piddly North Georgia mountains ... we're not at altitude, there's no glaciers, and it's friggin April! We're all adults here, so trust us to pack appropriate emergency gear in our packs or drop bags, or leave with crew. I was pissed about this before the race. I was pissed about this during the race. And 6 months from now when I look back on the race I'm still going to be pissed.
  • Aid Station location changes meant there'd be a nearly 11 mile stretch in the latter stages of the race -- between Jake Bull and Nimblewill -- with 1500' of gain. Back-of-the-packers would be doing this in the dark, perhaps taking 3.5+ hours to get through this section. Race management dictated we needed to carry an insane amount of weather protection, mostly for this climb, but they didn't bother to place any water somewhere along the way for the slower runners? That was borderline dangerous. I don't take in a lot of water when I run, but I was consciously conserving along that stretch of the race and I still manage to drain all 40oz of my liquids 1.5miles before the next aid station.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Taking it in Stride

I recently came across an excellent article on runner's guilt that felt particularly apropos. For many of the past months, I grappled with the guilt of not training at a higher level. A torn labrum in my hip kept training minimal, at best. Since January, I've worked to build up my running -- smartly. It's not to the level I'd like, but I've done a great job of keeping my hip happy, so I can't be too hard on myself, right?

And now, for the past two weeks I've hardly run at all. Every day that goes down as a big fat ZERO eats away at me. But I've also found myself dealing with the guilt of running, too. As I write this, I'm staring off at a sleeping ten day old baby boy! He's the reason I haven't had a long run in over 2 weeks, why 10-12 hour training weeks turned into 2-3, why a simple hour-long run seems like a needless luxury at my family's expense right now, and why I won't be completing a local race series this year.

I thought when my new kiddo came I'd have this wealth of time to run. DON'T LAUGH!  I'm not talking 5 hour long runs or anything, but at the very least an hour or two on the treadmill every day I was on leave from work ... if the kiddo was cooperative (and for the most part, he has been). But that hasn't happened. My mother-in-law was in town to help out for the past two weeks, and a series of unfortunate events has led my family to undertake a major bathroom renovation only days after bringing home a newborn. I don't want to skip out and leave the house for a run, but I also don't have much access to the treadmill because of our temporary living situation.

So ... I find myself trying to work past the all-too-familiar guilt of not running ... and now the guilt of trying to sneak in a short run every now and again. I'm trying to take it all in stride, to balance my priorities.

In the end I think I'm better for it, as a runner and a person.

Who cares if an 80 mile week turned into 20? There's a good reason for it!

And it's no big deal if I find a small stretch of time to grind out an hour on the treadmill a few times a week, so long as I'm still being an attentive husband and father!

You don't have to be working through an injury or taking care of an infant to learn and practice this lesson. Beating yourself up over a missed or failed workout won't do you any good. You're not going to instantly loose fitness. There's also no point in feeling guilty about using running for a bit of well deserved you time.

Life always finds a way of interfering with your picture perfect training blocks. Taking it all in stride is how you maneuver through the little hiccups and the associated guilt, and make it to the other side without getting burnt out physically or mentally.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Ending the Year on a High Note

(Everyone smiles when the suffering has ended! Photo Credit: Kristen Chang)

In the 3 months leading up to Hellgate, I'd run only around 300 miles ... Shameful! What's worse, only 90 of those miles came outside of a back-to-back weekend, Grindstone, and MMTR. I'd been in a perpetual recovery cycle, trying to prevent further damage to my bum hip. I knew I'd feel "rested" coming into Hellgate, but I was unsure as to how much fitness and speed I'd retained. And my disastrous outing at Masochist last month left me lacking in confidence.

That said, I still felt that a good outing could result in a sub-12:00 performance ... that, and a Top Ten finish, was my ultimate goal. It was a full 2 hours faster than my lazy jaunt through the woods last year, but then again, I'm a totally different runner than I was a year ago. The forecasted single digit conditions and my lack of training would undoubtedly conspire against me at some point, but it was the last race of the year and I didn't want to go out on a sour note.

I drove down to Camp Bethel the day before the race. I arrived feeling groggy from a 4 hour drive and a poor night's sleep -- toddler with 102 temp and a little projectile vomiting thrown in for good measure, why not! The atmosphere that greeted me was much different than last year.  In 2015, I was a newbie, an outsider. I didn't really know anyone so I just drove down, ran my race, and got out of there. This time around, there were scores of familiar faces and plenty of conversations to be had. It lifted my spirits and had me eagerly looking towards the 12:01am start.

After a light dinner, I headed over to the pre-race meeting ... a.k.a. Patagonia Puffy Convention. Horton's pre-race meeting Keynote Topic was Poop Here! Inspiring, as always. Afterwards, I failed miserably at trying to get some shut-eye. When 10:45pm rolled around, I met up with my random ride to the start and hoped to fit in a few minutes of shut-eye. Instead, we made a wrong turn about a half-dozen times and by the time we'd finally gotten to the start, I felt so out of sorts that I just wanted to say screw it, I don't care about this race anymore!

... But I walked to the starting line and quickly felt rejuvenated upon seeing all of my fellow compatriots in suffering. It was pitch black and bitterly cold. The time for this "very special" race was at hand. We shoddily sung the national anthem before jumping head-first into the abyss. It was Hellgate time ... 66.6 mountain miles and over 13,000' of vertical gain in the middle of December when everyone is sick, sore, and worn out from a year of training and racing. Hellgate ... the race everyone loves to hate!

(Obligatory Keith Knipling Elevation Chart)

I was donned in windproof pants and jacket, one of those absurdly warm Marine Corps Marathon long sleeves, light gloves, a beanie, a buff to protect my neck, clear sunglasses to stave off Hellgate Eyes, my trusty Injinjis, Lone Peaks (insoles glued this time around!), and two still-unfrozen handheld bottles. I could feel the cold in my bones at the start, but any fears of underdressing went away after the blood starting pumping within a couple minutes of jogging.

I quickly found myself in the company of John Andersen and Chris Miller. We shared many-a-mile together in races this year and the first part of Hellgate was no different. Enough eager runners jumped out front along with the real contenders that I had no idea where we stood -- maybe we were 10th, maybe we were 20th. Whatever. Let the race come to me.

The early miles in the dark felt eerie. There were times when I'd have perfect recognition of a section of trail that I'd only ever seen once before, a bit of a mind-trip in a frigid, sleep-deprived state. Aside from that, though, I never really felt the effects of sleep deprivation.

We made easy work of Petite's climb and then tackled the 4-mile-long Camping climb. The night sky was mostly clear and the stars and honey colored moon were fantastic company. John, Chris, and I interspersed chit-chat with labored hiking. When we arrived at Camping Gap I checked my watch and was pleasantly surprised to find I was right on target for the day -- the same pace I'd started out last year, only it felt much easier with nearly 2,500 more training miles and over 300,000' of vertical under my belt.

After cresting Camping, we proceeded into the 10 mile stretch of trails with a handful of successive 2-3mile climbs and descents that led to Aid Station 4, the first Bag Drop for the day. At some point along the way, John took charge on a steep single-track descent ... like, the dude straight up glissaded past Chris and I on successive switchbacks and tore ass down the mountain ... no "hey, I'm gonna pass" ... it was like an animal trying to assert its dominance. Quickly, I began to feel that I was being dropped. My legs felt sluggish, my knees achy, and it just seemed like I'd be gasping for air if I tried keeping up. Luckily, I maintained close enough connection that I could reconnect each time a climb began.

At this point in the night, sometime around 4:00am, the cold became all too evident. While I didn't feel cold (aside from some very stiff fingers), the weather was making itself known in other ways. My muscles didn't feel loose and my bum hip began to feel inflamed. It wasn't a huge deal yet, but I still had over 8 hours of running ahead of me. Also, I wasn't overheating so I wasn't really sweating, and thus, I was taking in significantly less water than planned. And it was proving difficult to take in substantial fluids now that my bottles were turning to slush and the nozzles required a good bit of chewing to break apart accumulated ice. No big deal ... except for the fact that a majority of my nutrition comes from liquids. I wrestled with this for a good number of hours, frequently trying to assure myself that less calories wasn't necessarily a bad thing since I was running comfortably ... let's just hope my body can still burn fat efficiently!

Just before arriving at Aid Station 4 -- Headforemost Mountain -- around Mile 26, I jumped into the woods to attend to some business. I hoped to connect back up with John and Chris soon, but I had a feeling I'd be spending the next few hours in no-man's-land. When I got to the AS, I actually passed up John and made quick work of digging through my drop bag and swapping out my cold bottles -- which, miraculously, hadn't frozen ... yet!

As I departed the Aid Station, John blew by me, and I'm still not entirely sure if he even saw me. I tried yelling to him that I'd be catching up, but then all of a sudden my knee gave out on me. I tried to pick up the pace to catch up, but pain radiated through my leg and I had to slow to a limp. Welp, there goes my day!

I still have no idea how it happened, but the stabilizer muscles in my lower leg just stopped working, preventing me from lifting my knee, and the nerve in that area would send bolts of pain through my leg with every footfall. This could turn into a very long day.

As time ticked by, my knee kept deteriorating. At some points I felt like I was just dragging my right leg along for the ride. I was in the midst of a 2000', 6 mile descent. Instead of cruising along I was struggling at what felt like mall walking pace. By the time I reached the next Aid Station at Mile 30, I had been passed by 6 to 10 runners. I started to wonder if I'd be able to do anything more than limp to a 17 hour finish. Should I cancel my big race next spring? Is my body just not cut out for this? What the hell am I even doing out here?! It was a tremendous low point for me, and the only consolation I had was that it was the end of the year ... just get to the finish, the off-season awaits!

Two hours went by like this ... and then ... I fell ... HARD!  My left quad took the brunt of it. I lay on the single-track, splayed out and stunned. When I got back up I started to jog again, and within 100 yards I realized my knee didn't hurt anymore. What The What?! I was stupefied. For the next hour I cautiously turned up my effort, testing my knee to see how it'd respond. And ... no complaints!  Just like that, I was back in business. So, let that be a lesson to y'all: sometimes tripping on a rock can be a good thing!

... One problem ... I'd lost nearly 30 minutes in those 2 hours of hobbling. I was probably 10 places behind John and Chris at this point. I figured I was so far out of the Top Ten that I'd never be able to make up enough time. My only hope: Hellgate carnage!

By AS 6 at Little Cove Mountain around Mile 38, I'd caught back up with Sarah Schubert, eventual female champion and all around Beast. We proceeded down the long, smooth double-track one after the other, and as I started to gap her it began to sink in: I could still make something positive out of this race.

Newly energized but still cautious, I cruised along. Around Mile 40 I came upon Chris Miller, who was in good spirits but was battling through a bit of a slow patch. He let me know there were 3 more runners not too far ahead ... motivation! I made surprisingly quick work of the Hellgate Leaves in the miles before AS 7 at Mile 46. Last year it felt like quicksand. Practically every stretch of trail was inundated with knee-high leaves. This year was no different, but I had enough spring in my step to hop through dicey sections and be light enough on my feet to avoid losing balance on the rocks lurking underneath. It was risky running, but a hell of a lot of fun.

By the time I made it into AS 7 at Bearwallow Gap, I was about 45 minutes off my ideal pace. But my legs felt fresh and my successful campaign against the Hellgate Leaves really boosted my confidence. I quickly swapped out bottles and headed back towards the trail. As I departed, I jokingly asked the timekeeper, "So, what am I in, 25th place or something?" He quickly looked at his chart and responded, "If you leave now, you'll be 11th." I asked how far ahead 10th was, but the only response I could elicit was a borderline sassy, "You'll just have to wait and see..."

So, somehow, miraculously, I found myself 20 miles from the finish and only one place out of the Top Ten.  It was time to find some carnage!

The next part of the course is my favorite. It doesn't have any climbs or descents which is a shame, but it weaves its way along the side of the mountains for miles and miles. Instead of going up and down them you proceed in and out, rounding the side of one mountain and then swinging into the hollow before the next one. And all the while you're rewarded with fantastic views to your right. It really is a wonderful stretch of trail.  But ... some people think this section sucks ... it's long, monotonous, blah blah blah.

Along this section, I gradually increased my effort, working my way up to what I'd call a medium cruise. My stride felt smooth. I own this trail! Every time I rounded a mountainside, my eyes would dart ahead, trying to find my prey. About a mile or so before Bobblets Gap, AS 8, a.k.a. The Tunnel,  I finally spotted him. Tenth place would be mine! Each contour in and out of the mountains I made up ground before finally overtaking him within sight of the aid station. I'd been drinking so little fluids that I had more than enough to make it to the final Aid Station, so I only stopped for a moment to down some ginger ale slushee (compliments of 0 degree wind chills) for some quick calories.

(Frozen drinks, anyone?! Photo Credit: David Horton)

With Tenth Place secured, I looked ahead to the Forever Section, and decided I wanted to gather up some more carnage. A lot of people complain about this section ... it feels long and monotonous, there's no views, blah blah blah. I think it's quite simple. Run downhill for awhile, then go up and down 3 relatively small hills (less than 1 mile climbs each). Easy! I pushed the pace and after a few miles spotted my next victim. This time, I felt like making a game of it. I stalked my prey, staying 40-60 seconds back for what seemed like forever, just waiting for a chance to strike.  He stumbled. I made my move! Ninth Place!

He tried running with me for a bit, and I happily let him tail me, but when we got to the final hill, I pushed hard and built up a decent gap. When I arrived at the final Aid Station, I lolly-gagged getting some drink mix in a bottle for the final climb -- I probably didn't need it, but I didn't want to burn out so close to the finish. As a result, the prey caught back up with me. We briefly chatted and he seemed a bit worried someone else might steamroll him in the final miles and take away his Top Ten. I tried to assure him that the only thing behind us was carnage, but he still seemed on edge. We began the final 2.5 mile climb and I warned him not to push it too hard ... and then I ran ahead in seeming violation of my own advice. For 2 miles of climbing I effectively did 30 second hill repeats. I made a sizable gap on tenth place. But the final section of the climb had me worn out and I just didn't feel like running anymore. Tenth place gained on me, but I knew that if I had a lead when we crested, there'd be no way he could catch me on the descent.

I crested the climb still in ninth place, and I careened down the other side. Occasionally I looked back, but it became obvious I'd be uncontested. I pushed to a hard downhill cruise all the way to the Mile To Go marker. Then I tried pushing a little harder. My legs didn't have much speed left so another gear wasn't in the cards today, but I did put in a solid 7-flat final mile on my way to a 12:39 finish. And when I crossed the line there was Horton and John Andersen to greet me. John had only finished 4 minutes earlier. Somehow in the final third of the race I made up more than 20 minutes of the gap that developed while my knee gave me problems.

Also, this little guy was greeting me at the finish! A well earned 2nd place in the 310+ mile, 6 race Beast Series:

(First Beast Series Completed!)

It wasn't a perfect race by any means. I struggled through some demons in my darkest 2 hour stretch of hobbling. But it all turned around when everything was said and done. It was validation that I could hold onto my endurance through nearly 6 months without meaningful training. So long as I get my hip sorted out, 2017 looks to be another fantastic year. Moreover, Hellgate was a great way to put the haunting failure of last month's Masochist firmly in the rear view mirror -- that disaster of a day was an abberation, confirmed as such by a shared suffering in this "very special" race on beautiful, frigid trails in December.

On a side note, this year's Top Ten schwag was a Patagonia Nano Air vest. I'm not a vest guy and they were out of Smalls (seriously, race directors, buy more Smalls and Mediums and less Larges ... we're trail runners, not shot putters ... oh, and a couple Extra Smalls wouldn't hurt!). So I didn't even get a fancy schmancy Top Ten prize. I guess that means I'll just have to come back next year and go through this whole charade all over again!

Up next: rest, an MRI, and beer.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Humble Pie

So I "ran" the Mountain Masochist 50 Miler this past weekend. Here's a super-condensed post in bullet form (with a little bit more detail down below)...

(Glad that's over with...)
  • Ooooh! Ahhhh! Pretty Stars! -- Me before the Start at the Lynchburg KOA Campground.
  • I raced it as if I had fresh legs ... my legs were NOT FRESH!
  • "I like those Oiselle arm warmers!" -- Michelle Andersen at Mile 15, acknowledging my impeccable running style.
  • I hit the Reservoir Aid Station at Mile 22 in 3:04. Perfectly paced for a sub-8 hour, Top 10 finish.
  • Then I turned uphill ... and the cramps began.
  • "Got a bit of the Grindstone Hangover?" -- Jack Kurisky, 49, as he passed me at Mile 26.
  • Aliza Lapierre passed me around Mile 28, power-hiking like a champ. I tried to save face by chatting about how we ran around each other for the first half of Western States. ... But I couldn't keep up, so the conversation ended rather quickly.
  • I got up to The Loop Aid Station more than 30 minutes behind schedule. I lost 30 minutes in 11 miles!
  • Brian Rusiecki and the other race leader exited The Loop (Miles 33 to 38) just as I was about to head in. Have you ever felt like your soul was being crushed? Obscenities were muttered. I wanted to throw my water bottle at somebody's face (mostly Brian Rusiecki's stupid, fast face).
  • In The Loop, my muscle cramps settled down a bit, but I still couldn't pick up the pace.
  • 14 men and 3 women passed me between Mile 22 and Mile 38. That's having to hear a half-hearted "Keep it up!" every damn mile for nearly 4 hours.
  • I stopped to work out some muscle cramps for the final time around Mile 46. All told, I spent nearly 30 minutes of my race, across 6 hours of running, trying to work out some of the worst cramps I've ever experienced.
  • I came upon Jack Kurisky with 3 miles to go. I offered to run into the finish with him, but that jerk didn't want to hold me back!
  • "Dude! You got chick'd like four times!" -- John Andersen taunting me from his mountain bike with 2 miles to go.
  • 8:58:10 ... a solid hour behind schedule.
  • That hurt. A lot. My muscles haven't been this sore since I ran R2R2R only 6 months after picking up running.
  • Time to scour the internet for an article that claims running for hours on end with painful muscle cramps is magically positively correlated with VO2max improvements...

The months leading up to MMTR were a struggle. I spent 2 months in Physical Therapy working on hip problems, which were severely limiting my ability to train. Somehow, miraculously, I was able to pull out a strong performance at Grindstone. But I still wasn't out of the woods, so in the four weeks between Grindstone and MMTR, I only put in about 30 miles of running.

In the final hours of Grindstone, I didn't push myself to the limit to protect my hip, and it seemed like my body was recovering quickly as a result. About 10 days out from Masochist, I did a tough workout and followed it up with a damn good 5K time trial the next day. It seemed as if my legs and hip were ready to go! But just to be safe, I took off the entire week before Masochist to make sure my hip was happy.

Despite running over a dozen races in the previous year, I hadn't really pushed myself to the limit and given it my all since Grindstone 2015. So I wanted to give it a go at Masochist and run as if it were an A race that I'd been carefully building up to, instead of a race 4 weeks out from a 100 Miler that I just needed to survive. I knew it was risky. Either my body would hold up and I'd have an incredible day, or I'd crash and burn half-way through and have a disaster of a day.

I pieced together some splits for a 7:50-8:00 finish. That's been good enough in years past for Top 10. More importantly, that's what John Andersen was able to run the previous 2 years. If he can do it, so can I! Nevermind the fact that his times were on fresh legs.

In the first miles of the race I was right on target. My body felt like it was working at 50 Mile Effort, but wasn't drifting into the realm of Marathon Effort or 50K Effort. I settled in just outside of the Top 10 and figured if all went well, I'd work my way up in the later half of the race. For awhile, I ran with or just behind Dan Spearin and Michael Dubova, who went on to finish in the Top 10 in 7:58.

Early on, I noticed that I was dehydrated, so I made a point to refill my water bottle at every aid station and pound the liquids to get back on track. It wasn't affecting my running, but I started to fear that I was running on borrowed time.

By Mile 22 at the Reservoir Aid Station, I was still perfectly on target, at 3:04, and my hydration had improved. Places 9-12 were just ahead, 30 seconds up on me. After a series of runnable smaller climbs, I was excited to tackle the 7 mile, 2500' climb in front of me. I like longer races with killer climbs cuz that means more walking power-hiking. I started my way up and everything quickly turned to crap. My quads and calves started to throw cramps. I stopped for a minute to stretch them out, but when I got back up to run again, it was clear they weren't going away. And just like that, my day was done.

Looking back at my data, I ran the first 22 miles at a heart rate comparable to that of a marathon. While my breathing and my muscles felt like I was running at a 50 Mile Effort, it's painfully clear now that my cardiovascular system wasn't 100% ... cuz, you know, I ran a 100 Miler four weeks ago! So it makes perfect sense that my legs crapped out at this point of the race, 10-20 minutes after I would've finished a road marathon on fresh legs.

Over the next 7 miles, I lost more than 3 minutes per mile from my goal pace. I had crashed and burned ... hard! Half way up the climb, at the Long Mountain Aid Station, I ran into Horton and joked I felt like I was at Mile 75, not 25. His response: Well DUH! Thanks Horton ... inspiring, as always!

When I finally reached The Loop at Mile 33, Michelle Andersen was there to greet me. I did a lot of complaining, but she wasn't having any of it! She practically shoved potatoes down my throat and then tried pushing me on down the trail. All I wanted to do was stand around and wallow.

In The Loop, things improved a little. I was still way off my goal pace, but I wasn't hemorrhaging time as quickly. The views were fantastic and the fall foliage was beautiful, and somewhere in that 5 mile stretch of trail I finally accepted the day for what it was -- a successful attempt at finding my body's limit, followed by a long training run in the woods.

When the dust settled, my first experience with MMTR can be described as this: 22 exciting miles at Marathon Effort followed by 6 hours of cramp-infused jogging. My pace slowed from an 8:20 per mile pace to more than 12 minutes per mile after the cramps set in. Even if you set aside the amount of time I spent trying to stretch out my muscle cramps, I was still averaging nearly 11 minutes per mile. And to put that into some context, that's the same pace I ran all of Western States, and slower than my back-to-back 30 mile training runs before Grindstone which had comparable vertical gain. It was a slogfest to be sure ... but at least I got my snazzy puffy for finishing the Lynchburg Ultra Series (in 3rd Place I might add).

I'd like to say I'll be back next year to give it ago. I mean, honestly, it's downright painful living in a world where old geezers like John Andersen (and Bad Back Spearin) can break 8 hours at Masochist but I can't! But I'm going to keep coming back to Grindstone because that race means so much more to me. And as long as I'm doing that, those 50 miles of trail between Grindstone and Hellgate will always play second fiddle. (Maybe next time I'll just have to do a little bit better job of pacing!)