February 7, 2010

Woodside 50K (Again, Yawn...)

I'm not sure when running longer-than-marathon races became a ho-hum, just another Saturday activity, but I couldn't help but feel that yesterday's Woodside 50K run was totally, completely routine. Heck, I'd run the thing just about two months before. It's as unexcited and un-nervous as I've ever been for a race.

I do love the course and the woods, though. In spite - or maybe because of - the rainy weather, it was a spectacular run. It's hard to convey those moments of complete contentment and tranquility, gliding along the soft ground in the damp mist under the green canopy of redwoods. This is why I keep coming back.

Those magical moments rarely last for five hours, though, and for me, at least, it turns out that running 30-odd miles is fairly hard. Using December's race as my baseline, I planned to push a little harder in the first third this time out, since I thought I had played it a little too conservatively back then. When we set out at 8:30, I made sure to keep the legs churning through the early, long climb to the King's Mountain aid station.

Once through there, I found I didn't have to push myself anymore - it was hard going no matter what my intensity was! I had definitely underestimated the difficulty the wet, soggy ground would cause. Mostly, it was just a subtle extra draining of energy with each step, but the accumulated drag of having to push off of very soft ground caused me some considerable problems as I moved through the course.

I hit the Bear Gulch aid station a little tired, but soon found my wind again on the downhill trails into Wunderlich Park. By the time I hit the theoretical half-way point of the race (15.5 miles on my Garmin), the clock stood at 2:24:48. Again, I was right on pace for an even-split 5 hour finish.

Throwing caution into the wind, I ran pretty much the entire uphill return to the aid station, slowing only once for an on-course pit stop, and caught my first road-kill victim at the top of the climb. Loading up on water and some chunks of Pay Day, I set out on the six-mile connector towards Huddart Park, which is when things got really tough.

Even small up-hill stretches reduced me to walking, and I felt a little embarrassed to be out of gas with nearly 10 miles left in the race. But the trail had become extremely sloppy after having had to absorb the footsteps of a couple of hundred runners, and much of my energy was spent pulling my shoes out of the mud. Unfortunately, I was running in my new Inov-8 FlyRoc 310s, which meant my feet had to do a lot of work. Soon, they felt quite sore, and my knees followed suit, as they were doing overtime trying to keep me stable as my legs slid to and fro.

By the time I hit King's Mountain again, I felt pretty trashed, and was not looking forward to the downhill section my quads would have to endure to get to the finish. But as far as I could tell, I had no competition behind me, so I could just cruise this last section and lick my wounds along the way. That is, that's what I thought until about a mile in, when out of nowhere a lady with a 500-number popped up behind me.

With miles to the finish, I figured I was toast. Bev Abbs was somewhere in front of me, but I really didn't like the idea of getting "chicked" a second time. Soon enough, this lady overtook me, and I decided to hang in behind her as long as I could. It turned out she was quite friendly, and we chatted a little bit as we moved along, now going at what I thought was a decent clip. I remarked to her later that perhaps all I'd needed was a proper kick in the ass, because I found my second wind and kept up with her until about a mile out, where I pulled away, somehow churning out a 7:20 pace (admittedly on a decline, and on asphalt).

I finished in 4:57, although the course was even shorter than last time (I measured 29.7 miles). I hesitate to call a 50K trail race a training run, but that's basically what it was. I just wish they could all be like that... well, minus the mud.

January 23, 2010

Pacifica 50K

Well, this was my fourth year at PCTR's Pacifica trail running event. I'm so experienced I remembered, offhand, the address I had to punch into my GPS (600 Oddstad Blvd) to get to the park!

Unfortunately, I've had too many things going on for the last month or two, so I was stressed and tired when I woke up this morning. Worse, I had a sore throat, or at least a part of it was sore. Let's call a spade a spade: I felt like crap. Lying there with the alarm going off at 6:00am, I semi-seriously contemplated just skipping this race. But I am too thick-headed not go to a race I've already paid for, so I got my butt in gear, coffee in a mug, climbed into the car and drove to Pacifica.

I was a little worried, truth be told. I hadn't run anything longer than 15 miles since my last 50K of 2009 on December 6. Also, it's been raining cats and dogs for about two weeks, and I wondered if the run would become a mud-fest up and down the hills of the San Francisco penninsula. Standing in line for the bathroom, pre-race, somebody asked me if the course would be "conditioned"(!) I.e., sand put over bad spots, etc. I told the guy no, what you see is what you get. At least the rain had let up for the day, and we would only be exposed to a very short shower during the day.

Wendell started us all promptly at 8:30, and I joined the crowd pressing their way through the narrow trails towards the North Peak, a climb of approximately 2,000' in about 3.5 miles. Once I got moving, I felt pretty good, and just enjoyed the spectacular views along the way. The trail had some muddy spots, but nothing that stuck, which was a relief. There were some huge puddles on the fireroad near the summit, which I just went right through.

After reaching the peak, one of the first things I saw on the descent was a guy off the side of the trail, puking about a gallon of sports drink out onto the ground. Little early to be self-destructing, I thought. Then, I enjoyed the incredible view from the firetrail: I could see for miles and miles out over the Pacific, the city of Pacifica, and spotted a beautiful rainbow over it. I was grinning ear-to-ear as I took a right down the technical single-track back to the aid station/camp grounds.

What followed was a double-dose of the Hazelnut Loop, which includes a mind-bending climb with about 30 switchbacks that never seem to end. Every time you reach a point you think might be the summit, the trails doubles back and takes you higher. Running this stretch takes patience. The first time around, I felt a little worried again - I thought I was too tired for so early in the race. By the second time, I actually felt slightly better - I guess I'm just "out of practice". 50Ks aren't exactly a walk in the park, and it's not always easy sledding.

Finally, I started in on my second ascent of the North Peak, catching up to the second-overall female, and passing her (I did end up getting chicked by F-1). In fact, I passed another runner as I kept up a good running motion all the way to the top. The miles were beginning to take their toll, though, and as I ran back down to the base camp, my quads were complaining loudly. Even downhill, I had a 10:15 mile (on some very technical terrain), and another 8:45 mile - hardly a good pace on a descent.

With about four miles left in the race, I faced the toughest part of the run - the Hazelnut Loop, for the third time. Climbing the switchbacks was like taking a glimpse into hell. I swear the climb was longer! The more I ran, the more I slowed down, and soon I was walking at least half the time. Every time I thought I'd crested the summit, there was another twist in the trail, waiting to take me higher. Boy was I relieved when I finally began the last descent.

I reached the finish covered in mud, about 5 and a half hours after I had started. I had also torn holes into the outer layer of both my shoes - this was not a gentle course. But the weather had cooperated, and all in all, it was a great day to be running those hills around Pacifica. No wonder this race sold out all distances.

December 26, 2009

Woodside 50K

Briefly, an entry on the Woodside 50K, my last race of 2009.

You'd never mistake me for a speedster, but four weeks after the MMTR 50, I put together a very even 30 mile run, admittedly under perfect conditions, to post my first sub-5-hour 50K finish. Alas, I can't let it count, because the course was about 0.7 miles short!

I'm not sure how much this had to do with my performance, but I drank a Vespa before the race. In my constant experimentation with equipment and nutrition, I came across this supplement that both Scott Dunlap and others use and recommend. Only after I had purchased it ($6!!!) did I find the website linking the ingredients to the Asian Mandarin Wasp. Great, now it sounded like complete bullshit. But I put it down anyway.

Getting ready for the start, I tied a spare water bottle to my running vest in anticipation of the Orange Loop, a longish 9 miles without aid. As I was doing this, Mark Tanaka rushed over, flustered and late as usual (although his blog post reveals why), trying to change and get ready as Wendell was calling us out to the start. We all got there in time, and at 8:30, got going on the trails.

First thing I found, tying a water bottle to your running vest doesn't work. The thing was bouncing around like crazy, and after a couple of minutes, the knot came undone (my bowline was fine, but the rope I used too slick). Oh well - I transferred the spare to my left hand.

I tried to take it easy on the outbound section, given my proximity to a 50-miler and light running schedule since then. I had forgotten that the run opens with a protracted climb through the forest, but being early in the race, I managed to keep up a running motion the whole way (well, almost) without feeling I was pushing too hard. Soon, King Mountain aid station came into view. I refueled and started in on my favorite part of the course.

The section along Skyline Boulevard is beautiful. Running on soft ground through the lush forest, with very little elevation change, felt wonderfully peaceful. Still conserving energy, I got passed by two women in this section, something which would normally piss me off, but I was just too content to really care. Following one of those women, we came to a big tree that had fallen right across the path. She turned around and gave me a priceless look, a combination of "WTF?" and "are we still on course", before she tried to pick her way through the brush. I climbed up the hill to circumvent the tree, and we emerged on the other side roughly at the same time.

On reaching Bear Gulch aid station, I filled both bottles and watched in surprise as another woman blew through the station and onto the longish 9-mile loop. "She'll run dry and be hurting later," I thought. I buckled up and followed her.

Emerging onto one of the few unshaded spots of the course, I relished the feeble winter sun and took advantage of some bushes on an uphill to water the plants. Soon the trails began to descend, and as I followed them, the race leaders started to show up, already on their way back. The first guy passed me, and just as I started to think, "I'm feeling a little fatigued," I promptly rolled my weak right ankle. I hesitated a minute, but then I thought, I'm deep in the woods and nobody can hear me.

"FUCK!" "FUCK!" "FUCK!" I yelled, and it made me feel much better.

The pain in my ankle subsided, and I continued on. It would stay upright the rest of the day. By the time I started the loop that would turn me around back to where I'd come from, I had counted four runners already on the return section. Many more would be on the loop - looks like I wasn't having a good day, race-position wise.

Running along the Redwood trail, I came across the strange Salamander Pond in Wunderlich Park. Around that time, my Garmin announced I had run 15.5 miles, half-way through the race. My time was 2:24:57 - I was exactly on pace for a five-hour finish.

Unfortunately, the return to Bear Gulch aid station involved climbing the trails I had descended down earlier. I felt a little tired, but kept up what I considered a good "ascent" speed, but I was falling way off the pace for that five-hour finish. As I approached the aid station, I caught up to the woman who had run through without picking up water. "Gone dry?" I asked her? No, she hadn't. We paced each other up the last hill and back to the aid station.

As I stopped, she again blew right through without stopping! Muttering to myself, a friendly 35K runner put my spare water bottle in the back of my running vest, and I set out in pursuit. Within five minutes, I caught up and settled in behind her, feeling quite relaxed.

Then it struck me - there was no need to conserve my energy anymore. Now I don't know how much I can attribute to the Vespa drink, and how much to the easy course and conditions, but I felt remarkably focused and in control for so late in a race. This wasn't like spinach is to Popeye - my legs weren't turning over very fast, and I was feeling fatigued - but I was mentally sharp and my physical deterioration was very even, no sudden drops or surges.

I dropped Miss No-Aid-For-Me-Thank-You, worked hard along Skyline Boulevard and caught first one, then another runner. I tagged along behind the second runner, and we raced each other all the way to King's Mountain. But once we arrived, he doubled over, huffing and puffing like he was going to have a heart attack. I still felt really good, refueled and ran along towards the finish.

I caught one more guy, and spent some time chasing another I would not be able to overtake, but mostly I kept checking my time and doing the math. It did not look like I would be able to get under five hours, unless I hammered some 6-minute miles on that last descent. As I reached the dirt-covered asphalt road, I conservatively started to increase my speed, when the finish line ambushed me - the course was short. So officially, I ran a 4:58.

In the end, I got chicked three times, only finished 25th out of about 100 runners, but I had a great race. The Vespa I'm still on the fence about - did it help me, or was the course just easy? Pondering this question, I warmed myself up with some nice hot soup before driving back home, my last ultra of the year complete.

December 25, 2009

Christmas Gifts

Christmas is about giving... but also, it's about receiving running gear. I've got four new items that I am looking forward to breaking in on the road and the trails in 2010.

A tactically placed hint dropped about dirtygirlgaiters.com worked, and I got a nice pair of "DFL"s in yellow.


I also found a new "premium" heart rate monitor under the tree. I've always been sort of ambivalent about these HRMs. One the one hand, it is very cool to be in total control of your engine RPMs, but on the other hand, I've discovered I can just run by feel, too. Regardless, the normal strap with the big plastic band chafes me when running long distances, and once I actually broke skin, I put the thing away. This model, with a much smaller sensor placed on the breast plate, will hopefully be more comfortable.


Next, I got socks. Lots of socks. Lots and lots of socks: 12 pairs. My dad has problems with scale, and gets carried away when shopping. I also have a tendency to punch holes in my socks, and luckily the brand he got I find really comfortable. I should be covered for the foreseeable future now:


Finally, the real prize is a Nathan hydration pack. It's a two-bottle hip pack that Karl Meltzer recommends, and whatever he does, it seems to be working for him! He claims they "don't move a lick when moving at top speed," but I wonder how much of that is due to his running motion and how much is due to the pack's design.


Conceptually, I like the idea of carrying liquid close to my center of gravity. I get along with the hand-helds, but once I start carrying two of those instead of one, they do bother me. As far as I can tell, the two alternatives are either these hip packs, or the back packs. Who knows, maybe I'll hate the pack, but right now I'm loving the idea of running with it.

In other news, I'm growing a beard to cope with the cold winter weather and keep my face warm while I get some miles in during the mornings. Not that I'm really running much right now, in an effort to let my body recover from 2009. Unfortunately, as I've reduced my mileage, I've developed pain in the outside of my left heel when I run on uneven terrain (trails). I'm like those fish that live deep in the Mariana Trench: they can't leave the depths and the high pressure of the trench or they'll die. I seem to need constant mileage or else I get hurt!

It looks like soon I'll have to drive that mileage up again. I've slipped into the Miwok 100K via the wait list, and the race is a scant 18 weeks away.

November 21, 2009

A Return to the Trails

With two weeks now between me and my MMTR experience, I ventured back out onto trails for a mid-day 10+ mile run. And it was great!

My ankles are still a bit wobbly, but all in all the rest seems to have added up and I managed a decent clip running around Santa Teresa Park. It just felt right again - the smells and sounds, nothing like Virginia.

I really found my groove running down the Rocky Ridge trail, a slightly downhill section that gets more and more technical as it goes along. Hopping over rocks and ruts in the ground, I found the trough at the end of the trail, climbed out of it and rolled on to the Fortini trail, which features a number of switchbacks that ascend the hills on the south side of the park. It was here where I dropped a pair of mountain bikers, which I always enjoy. By the time I hit the top of the hills, they were at least 400m behind me. Hey, I'm not the one who decided to lug pounds of metal around with me! On foot is the way to go.

Unfortunately, the rains had shut down a little connector trail and I had to finish the last two miles or so of my run on surface streets. But no matter.

Originally, I had planned to shut it down for the year, but I am now eyeing the Woodside 50K in two weeks. I thought it would be a pretty low-key event right before Christmas, but the word is out about that course. It is spectacular, and looks like it is going to completely sell out. I'll see how I feel tonight and decide then whether I want to do another ultra in 2009 or not.

November 19, 2009

Mountain Masochist 50

mmtr_logo.gifWhose bright idea was it to enter a race named the "Mountain Masochist"? Oh that's right... it was my idea. In my defense, I signed up as an overflow entry, trusting the ultrarunning community to not cancel their race entries en masse. No such luck - I got into the race ten weeks beforehand, and even on race day, there were still slots available to be filled.

My interest in the Mountain Masochist has its origins in a run I did in the year 2000. After pledging a fraternity (which shall remain unnamed), I was forced into early morning runs twice a week for the duration of my pledgeship. Mid-way through "Hell Week" - the final week of pledgeship - our group was taken out for an excursion on the Blue Ridge Parkway at the break of dawn.

It was a magical run. Mostly because one badly out-of-shape pledge brother held us back to the point where we were almost walking, and the rest could enjoy a quiet sunrise over the serene Blue Ridge Mountains. This was the very first time in my life I experienced running as runners do, and not as the torture it is for most other people. Though it would still be years before I took up regular running, and even more years before I started running "for real", that morning stayed stuck in my mind.

Once entered, I resigned myself to some hard training and ramp-up races, hoping what I could do would be sufficient for running 50 miles. But then again, how in the world can you really prepare for something like that? I figured if I could run 50K without too much difficulty, I could probably put together 50 miles one way or another.

I flew out to DC on Thursday and hung out with friends before getting a full night's sleep and driving down to Lynchburg on Friday. I was staying in the host hotel for the night - the Kirkley - which certainly eased the logistics for me.

Friday evening featured a pre-race dinner, where I was first exposed to the colorful Dr. David Horton - RD emeritus - as well as the new RD, Dr. Clark Zealand, and some other characters. Many runners seemed to know each other from the other ultras run in Virginia, like the Grindstone 100, Hellgate 100K etc. I tried to pry some useful intelligence out of MMTR veterans, and filled myself up on pasta and lasagna.

After a short and broken night of sleep, my alarm(s) went off at 3:20am (EST). Ouch. I got my gear together, checked out of my room and climbed aboard one of the five school buses that would take us to the start on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Promptly at 4, they snaked their way out of the parking lot and transported us to our destination. Most runners stayed in the bus til just before race start at 5:30.

It was, of course, pitch black as we got going, with most competitors wearing some form of headlamp or other. As the first six miles or so were on asphalt, it wasn't a problem. I spent some time chatting with a runner about headlamps, wildlife (mountain lions out West vs. bears out East) and whatnot as I paced some easy eight to nine-minute miles. By the time aid station #2 popped up, it was bright enough to discard my headlamp in the provided drop box and start the first climb into the trails of the Virginia mountains.


The sunrise was nice. Still fresh and finally in the forest, I enjoyed the morning even though my pacific-time-adjusted body was ready to fall asleep again. The trail running was completely different than what you'd experience in California because of all the foliage on the ground. The fallen leaves would cover rocks and roots, turning some stretches into really treacherous terrain.

After about ten miles, my energy level dipped precipitously, mostly because of the lack of sleep and time difference. I didn't feel right mentally and was fighting the terrain more than I'd have liked. As the miles ticked by, I pulled out of my low with the advance of the morning hours. Elevation changes weren't too momentous, and I felt like I was running a decent race.

The idea of having to run 50 miles still hadn't properly registered in my head, though. It was surreal to check my Garmin, see 15 miles on it, and think that I was still over 50K away from the finish.

The running conditions, meanwhile, took me by surprise a little. After enjoying a typical California fall, I had to negotiate the mass of golden leaves that littered the ground in the more northern Blue Ridge Mountains. In and of themselves, they weren't bothersome, but they completely obscured the ground proper, leaving me to balance over whatever rocks, roots or potholes they hid. Early on, this wouldn't be a problem - but later, it would be another story.

But a lot of the course was on fire roads, which made for pretty steady and uneventful running. I made idle chit-chat with other runners while we passed the miles until the race got serious. Which was a little bit past mile 20, when we started a grinding climb into the higher elevations. Though tired, I still felt fairly decent and even passed a few runners on my way up (utterly meaningless at this point). Finally, I crested a hill and emerged on a large clearing to the sight of a clear day and sunny sky. Not much further on, I found Aid Station 10 at mile 26.9 - inofficial half-way point and drop-bag station.

I managed to lose lots of time negotiating my drop-bag, and felt envious of those running with a crew. The simple task of changing shirts and re-loading my running vest with gels and food seemed as difficult as an algebra exam. At one point, I leaned over to pick up my sun glasses and all the gels fell right out of my vest! By the time I exited the aid station, I saw that I was right back at the tail end of the people I'd overtaken during the initial climb.

The next segment of the course featured the ascent of Buck Mountain, or as I unceremoniously dubbed it, "F*ck! Mountain!" It seemed to take forever, and in truth, it was a pretty long section, taking several miles and eating up a good 2,000 vertical feet. For a long time, the "Rocky" theme music would waft over the mountain side from the aid station at the top of the climb, taunting us runners. Feeling more and more tired, I realized I was right around 31 miles, my previous max. It would be unchartered waters from here on out.


Transitioning to fire road again, I trudged on until reaching the entrance to The Loop, a technical 5-mile or so section that would take runners near the summit of Mount Pleasant. As I began, I realized the sun was starting its descent from the sky! I'd been running a long time indeed.

Despite my fatigue, I decided to attempt some proper running - at least on the uphills - only to have my race start to unravel. As I was moving up the leaf-covered trail, I rolled my right ankle, hard. Switching to a walk, I let the pain settle for a couple of minutes before setting out again. Almost no sooner had I started jogging, when bam! Rolled my right ankle once more. A little harder this time. Cursing the trail, I waited out the pain, then tried picking it up... and again, I rolled my ankle, this time transferring off of it before I could cause more damage. And with that, the competitive running portion of my day, at least on the single-track trails, ended. Afraid of really hurting myself, I decided to walk any technical trails as best I could.

Surprisingly, not too many people caught me in this section, and by the time I exited the loop - now having run somewhere around 40 miles - I found I could move fairly well once back on fire road. A volunteer warned me, "it's uphill now!", and I replied: "Good!" At this point, I preferred the uphills to the downhills, with good reason: my quads were pretty shot, and any type of downhill running resulted in agony, not to mention endangering my weak right ankle.

Up or down though, there was no denying the wheels were gradually coming off. My pace slowed to 15-minute miles at points, and even the more runnable sections saw me maybe eking out 12 minutes for the same distance. My nutrition strategy also failed me. Originally, I had planned on one gel every 45 minutes, but in the late miles, they got harder and harder to stomach. Finally, I unpacked a vanilla-flavored Hammer Gel, took a slug, and almost blew it all back out right then and there. That was it for gels, there was just nothing I could do.

The 40s (mile 40+, that is) weren't a lot of fun. The fire roads were not particularly scenic, and all I could do was keep putting in the work to cover the miles. I did not ever have a huge low, nor did I find myself in a corresponding high, either. Never doubting my ability to finish the race, however slowly, I methodically plodded on. Endured, you could say. I think that was the point.

Although other runners would pass, I gradually recognized two other competitors who were moving at my pace, and we kept up some conversation as the afternoon wore on. Pacing with them helped me focus, and kept me motivated.

With around five miles to go, the course headed into some gnarly - and hilly - single track. Inevitably, I fell behind everyone else and got passed by more and more people. I was astounded by some of these runners, who looked like they were just warming up, while the leaf-covered ground and rolling terrain was challenging me to the max. Finally, I limped into the last aid station, which was officially listed as 2.9 miles from the finish line. All race, I'd been hearing horror stories about "Horton Miles", and some gossip had reached me that the final stretch was seven miles, not three! Luckily, the aid station crew came clean and revealed the actual distance to the finish line was 3.9 miles. I could deal with that, and embarked on the closing act of my 50 mile tragedy.

As the course crested another high point and started its final descent into Montebello, even more people bounded by me. I was especially jealous of those with pacers, and I recognized the benefit of company in tough stretches like that. All I got was a lady walking a dog who lied to me about the distance to the finish (misguided, but appreciated, and I almost believed her!) Soon enough, the 1-mile marker appeared, and then thankfully, mercifully, I got my wonky ankle off of treacherous trails and onto predictable asphalt. Accelerating to my new max speed (9:30/pace?), I held off further runners and crossed the finish line with 10:39 on the clock.

Holy crap! What a run!

Dr. Horton was right there at the finish, shaking hands with all the runners. I picked up my finisher's shirt and ambled over to the bench press set-up, fancying a go at the "Iron Horse" award (most reps at 135lbs/95lbs for men/women), but somebody had cranked out 35 already! Laughing, I skipped the work out, which would have probably been a travesty in the state I was in anyway.

Collecting my head lamp and drop bag (which now magically contained an unexpected pair of women's "arm panties" - weird), I managed to hop on the first bus back to the Kirkley, full of runners with which to trade war stories. One guy made me feel like a wuss - he was going to head to the Carolinas that night in order to run a marathon *the next day*!

The Kirkley staff was awesome: they set up a number of rooms with soap, shampoo and towels so we could get cleaned up! It was definitely much appreciated - I was expecting the usual "go the swimming pool" treatment. I felt like a VIP.

I skipped the post-race dinner to drive Route 60 to Lexington so I could visit/crash at a friend's place from college. How, I don't know, but I am probably lucky I didn't kill myself. My adventure ended the next day with a return to DC and a (thankfully) direct flight into SFO. What a weekend.

In no particular order, here are Things I Now Know that I was ignorant of before.

50K shape is not 50 mile shape. It's not even in the ballpark. Not even the same sport. Being able to run 50K well had no bearing on my performance at MMTR. 50 miles are tough!

You can fake your way through shorter trail runs even when you primarily train on roads. But the bitter truth is revealed in the ultra distance. I feel that by only running trails on weekends, neither my quads nor ankles were able to handle the rigors of the Mountain Masochist while my hamstrings and calves had reserves left. Which did me no good. Specificity of Training - simple lesson.

Ultra nutrition is still a higher-level mystery to me. Perhaps there is nothing that can be done, but gels apparently are not the answer.

Finally, to mis-quote Dean Vernon Wormer: "Color blind and running on fall foliage is no way to go through life, son." The leaves were an unexpected hazard. Lesson: stay in California!

Right now, I don't think I'll ever return to Virginia for running - heck, right now, even a marathon sounds ambitious - but I was blown away by the great race put on by Clark Zealand and team. I cannot imagine the logistical nightmare of putting on a 50 mile point-to-point race, but I certainly appreciated the pay-off. And I can honestly say, the course marking (white ribbons) were by far the best I have ever seen in my life, and a real life-saver for a guy like me who could get lost in a phone booth. Thumbs up from this California runner - what a great event.

MMTR Race Site
Eco-X Sports Blog
Garmin Connect Activity Details
MMTR Photos

August 28, 2009

A Pikes Peak Pounding


My first week or so back at sea level, and I was constantly exhausted. I slept nine hours a night, usually added on another one or two on the couch in the afternoon. My knees buckled as I trudged around the house. I was down about five pounds from my usual weight. Suffice it to say, the Pikes Peak Marathon annihilated me. What fun, though!

But there were moments I thought I'd be a DNS for the race. Like 24 hours beforehand, when I couldn't run a single step. Somehow, I managed to aggravate an old rib injury and could barely breathe, never mind bounce my body on my feet while running. I studied the cut-off times on the race website, determined to at least start the run the next day.

Luckily, the injury subsided over night, and though bothersome didn't affect my time much the next day. As a Pikes Peak veteran now, I managed to find good parking and timed my arrival at the starting line nicely. The weather was perfect! The race director announced the conditions at the summit (30F, wind chill 15F) before ceding the stage to some local high-schoolers who sang an a capella version of "America the Beautiful" to get everyone in the right frame of mind. With Pikes Peak towering in the background, not a sound was heard from the crowd as the singers rendered their version of the song.

And then we were off! Mindful of my ribs, I started out slowly, but within a couple of minutes things loosed up and I was able to move at a decent pace. Soon the course left the paved streets of Manitou and took us up the initial steep switchbacks of the Barr Trail. I was happy with my pace, overtook a few and was overtaken by a few, but overall maintained my place and steadily ate up the distance.

This year, I'd have to not only go up, but also get back down. "Up and back down" - that sounds a little like "There and back again", the title for Bilbo Baggins' book on his travels with the dwarves. Unlike Bilbo, I wouldn't have to worry about Smaug the dragon at the top of the mountain though. Just breathing - the air at the summit has only 48% of the oxygen found at sea level.

Wearing my Garmin, I ignored the distance display and instead focused on elevation, the true indicator of progress in this race. 7,000', 8,000'... I was feeling decent. While I don't have my splits from last year's Ascent, I felt I was on a similar pace.

Things were moving along nicely until what must be my altitude cutoff... about 9,500'. Just like last year, I started falling back among the runners. Trying to make myself feel better, I asked a lady who was passing me if she was from "altitude". "No, I'm from Chattanooga, Tennessee," she answered cheerfully before leaving me behind for good. Damn! So much for my master plan of acclimatizing to elevation before the race.

Oh well, slow down was to be expected. But something was not right, or better put, something was worse than last year. Without consulting my times, I knew I was slower, especially on the relatively flat section of the course before Barr Camp. Things only got worse as the trees got smaller, the light got brighter, and we emerged from the woods onto the martian landscape of Pikes Peak above treeline.

Soon enough, shouts of "downhill runner!" preceded the appearance of Matt Carpenter, ruddy-faced but handily on his way to another marathon victory. More runners followed suit, intermittently at first, but then with increasing frequency until finally I was seemingly constantly balancing on the edge of the trail to make way for downhill runners.

That still didn't explain my pace, though. The first two miles above treeline took me 22 minutes and 25 minutes, respectively (versus about 20 minutes each in training not five days previously!) The final mile to the summit was especially brutal. I had trouble focusing, got tunnel vision and at one point almost fell off the trail. "You scared me for a minute!" said a rescue team member. "Imagine how I felt," I replied.

31 long minutes for that last mile to the top. I took a standing eight-count on the infamous 16 Golden Stairs, with the summit banner in sight, leaning against a large boulder, trying to catch my breath without passing out. Once I did make it to the top, there was no time to celebrate. Get me off of this thing! Air! Air! The Ascent, meantime, had taken me 3:57 - 12 minutes longer than last year.


Surprisingly, the descent was almost as bad as the ascent. My legs felt like complete rubber, and I had to walk large sections of the trail for fear of tripping, falling or just outright collapsing. I continued to be passed by runners who apparently had nowhere near the trouble I had with the thin air. Invariably, the sections I tried to actually run properly ended when I'd roll my right ankle. Fearing a trip to the emergency room, I'd slow back to a walk, just trying to survive this psychotic race. My fears, incidentally, seemed to be well-founded, as I heard some volunteers discuss another runner's broken ankle. Ouch!

Soon after A-Frame, I was passed by a runner from the Incline Club I had talked to previously. Her time from 2008 had been a little over seven hours. My God, was I that slow?! I had to pick it up, one way or another.

9,500' became my mantra. That was my magic number, the spot where I hoped I'd return to some semblance of my normal running self. Alas, a good section of the Barr Trail meanders through the woods at around 10,000' - 11,000'. I managed to attach myself to another runner who was having trouble similar to mine. Although we were both being passed quite often, I took solace in the fact that I had found a partner in pain, someone else who was struggling in the thin air.

With about five miles to go, I found the strength returning to my body. Now the downhill training I'd tried to focus on this summer seemed to pay off, as I managed to move quite well on the rather steep descent towards Manitou Springs. The temperature, meanwhile, had climbed into the 80s, in contrast to the near freezing temperatures at the summit. What a crazy race.

Nearing the end of Barr Trail, I found myself bringing up the tail of a small pack of runners. I was content to stay there, since passing was treacherous and I felt confident I could accelerate away from these other runners once we hit the asphalt of Manitou Springs. The only problem in this stretch was the gravel I collected in my right shoe (note to self: buy gaiters). The gravel caused a pretty painful blister on my right heel, but at this point, it seemed no more than a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things.

The final mile of the race took us into Manitou Springs. As expected, I pulled away from the small pack, hoping I hadn't underestimated the distance to the finish line. It seemed to take forever, but eventually a line of cones formed a small lane along the road to lead us to the finish line. But where was it? I rounded a corner, and like a jack-in-the-box it popped up suddenly... and the clock read 6:39:55. I sprinted like a mad-man, and my final time was recorded as 6:39:59.

The finisher tent, blessedly, had some chairs, which felt heavenly after having been on my feet for almost 6 and three quarter hours. My slowest 50K time, incidentally, is 6:11! This had been quite an excursion. Meanwhile, another section of the tent looked like a WWII hospital, with numerous runners having taken painful spills along the course.

I picked up my sweats and a sweet finisher jacket and headed to the creek, where many runners were icing their legs. With numbing muscles, I contemplated what went wrong and came to the conclusion that my 10 days at altitude hurt me more than they helped. It seemed that day to day, I'd grown more tired instead of acclimatizing. Perhaps my next altitude race I'll try to arrive as close to start time as possible, to take advantage of the short period before performance deteriorates.

I don't know if I'll ever return to Colorado Springs and that insane set of trail races. I can honestly say that the Pikes Peak Marathon is the hardest race I've ever done... and one of the neatest runs you'll find in America.