Saturday, May 19, 2012

On Heavy Rotation - Spring

In which the author attempts to use one-sentence reviews to capture why these 2012 records are awesome and fails in new and stunning ways.  Probably you should just listen to the songs below instead.

The Shins -- Port of Morrow
I'm not so much a Shins fan as a Chutes Too Narrow fan, and even there the twee lyrics make that record age as poorly as the early Bright Eyes records, so I was excited to hear Mercer come out of the bedroom diary and write surprising turns of phrase and more complex themes while retaining his ear for melody and pop sensibilities.

Beach House -- Bloom
A darkly enchanting record that begs for multiple thru-listens, with Legrand's searing delivery and beautiful phrasings drawing you in, and the lush production serving as audiopiate (how is this not a word?).

Cloud Nothings -- Attack on Memory
When I need loud guitars and pointed lyrics to shout along with in the car, I can't get enough of this record, an Albini-produced, room shaking diatribe against getting old and boring.

Miniature Tigers -- Mia Pharaoh
This is the album Of Montreal should have made after Hissing Fauna, crammed to the point of bursting with pop goodness and a wicked sense of fun from first to last track.

Lotus Plaza -- Spooky Action at a Distance
A guitar record with a thick gauze of summer haze and loads of noise, it's another one that needs to be played loud, with windows down and the smell of heat matching the energy of these songs.

Spiritualized -- Sweet Heart Sweet Light
Sometimes you need a good mess in your life to appreciate the structure that felt suffocating only days ago, and this record is that walking disaster that you invite into your house, but leave the door open.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Running Mountains. A Great Smoky Adventure

A couple of weeks ago, Alaina and I drove 7 1/2 hours down to Knoxville for Sunday's Rev3 Olympic distance triathlon, her first race as a pro.  We were both stoked about being down there to see what pro racing is all about.  But this ultrarunner couldn't let the golden opportunity of running trails on major league hills slip by him.

On Friday night, after packet pickup and pre-driving/riding part of the bike course as race recon, I drove solo up to Haw Ridge Park, 30 minutes north of Knoxville for a trail run.  Haw Ridge is billed as tough-as-nails mountain biking, but I figured this late in the day, with the sun about to set, there probably weren't many MTBers out there.  Assumption proved correct.

Top of Haw Ridge. 

I hopped out of the car and headed into the unknown woods of Tennessee.  I had no trail map and no idea where I was, but I knew there were trails here, so I started up the first one I could find.  And up, and up, and up, until I was at the crest and overlooking my now-tiny Honda Element 300' down below.  With chest exploding, I forged on, up and down gnarly switchbacks and hooting and hollering aloud while dancing through thickets of poison ivy chasing FUN before I lost the sun.  It was glorious, and I knew I'd picked the right place to go.  And so I also realized that if these local trails are this cool, the Smokies must be even better.

That decided it.  I was going to Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  On Saturday, I woke up at the ungodly hour of 5:00am and drove the hour-plus into the greenest mountains I've ever seen.  In a rush to get out the door and onto the trails, since I had to be back in Knoxville by 12:00 for Alaina's pro meeting, I had no coffee.  Yeah, that's right.  Mountain running with no caffeine.  But as soon as I saw those mountains in the rising dawn, I was wide awake.  Sufjan Stevens came on, and I blasted those ethereal horns and watched the sun muster over the peaks.

I found the Alum Caves trailhead to Le Conte Mountain, so hopping out of the car with my Wasp hydration pack filled with water and GU gels, I headed into the unknown.  The trail crossed a shallow creek and then followed it upward.  I was so geeked to run mountains I just couldn't get the smile off my face and I was instantly wide awake.

The extremely well-maintained trail hugged the stream and rose gradually, but constantly uphill.  The trail starts at 3830 feet and climbs up to 6,555 feet over 5 miles, so I knew enough to start in a nice EZ gear and spin away despite this highly runnable section.  There were only a few hikers out there, everyone very friendly and happy to be out there at first light.

After 1/2 mile, I crossed over the stream on a tree that had been cut and fashioned into a bridge with one handrail, and then climbed these slick and steep stairs through this narrow little cave space.  Such fun!

The morning was overcast with some patches of morning sunlight, but as I got higher, I realized I was running right into a cloud.  So I took advantage of the clear views for now and snapped some pics of the heart stopping beauty of the Smokies.

Trail surface remained runnable for much of the first half of this run, but after 2 miles of running straight up, my legs were feeling the lactic acid building and I relished the really rocky surface so I could get a power hiking break.

I should probably mention here with honesty that the single most prominent word in my mind, just edging out 'WOW', was 'Bear'.  Smoky Mountain National Park boasts 1,500 black bears in its environs.  So I velcro-ed a cowbell to my hydration pack in an attempt to warn my furry friends of my approach.  The sound of that multi-toned ring was comforting and hypnotic, sounding like a Tibetan ceremony and filling my head with a Zen state of running alone in the mountains.

Hikers have the option of four different trails that will lead them to Le Conte peak, and now I'd reached the namesake of the trail I'd chosen --Alum Caves -- which is not a true cave, but an enormous overhang of rock.  Here I met a hiker who has done each of the 4 ascent trails in his life, and he told me that the easy part was over, now came the fun part.  I thanked him for this bit of cheeky news and headed up into the misty clouds.

Soon after leaving Alum Caves, I was knee deep in the cloud, and rain occasionally sprayed me but soon would pass.  I'd not checked the weather before leaving, but I was starting to realize as I got higher how quickly conditions can change on a mountain.

Running through a cloud, the mountain forest covered in a mist brought Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" into my head, so I sang that to myself and kept the legs ticking over while my visibility went down to <100 feet ahead.

Rain was now spraying me sideways as I got closer to the peak, and I heard thunder around me.  The winds picked up, and I was now at ~6,000 feet.  I was so close to the peak, just had to keep running hard.  The rain was coming down hard now and thunder was ringing through my ears.  And just when I was getting worried about my safety, I saw Le Conte Lodge, a set of rustic cabins at the peak, so I ducked inside one of them and waited out the storm and sent Alaina a text updating my situation.

But the rain passed after 15 minutes and I needed to get moving back to the car, so I headed back down the trail the way I'd come.  The rock was slick now, and with precarious cliffs just off the trail, the descent was not going to be much faster than the climb to the top.

I was totally soaked but running kept my body warm, so I kept up the pace and loved the pounding on my quads...for now anyway.

I kept expecting to see a bear in the forest, but nothing came out of the deep cloud.  I wasn't the only one with bears on the mind though.  I passed not one but two different people that asked me, "Are you just running for fun or is there a bear?"  And I'm pretty sure they weren't joking.

The National Parks Service does an excellent job keeping up this trail, and I found these narrow wooden steps and bridges, built of fallen trees a real treat on the trail.

I did come across a rather disconcerting sight, a tree now blocked the trail that had NOT been there on the ascent.  Looks like the storm was pretty intense!

As I got lower, the views opened up, and I was able to see the sweet smoke for which these mountains are known.

When I got back to the car, I realized that I had just enough time to get to another trail, Chimney Tops, for more running, before driving back to Knoxville.  I couldn't resist.  Chimney Tops trail is a 2 mile trail that ascends 1,700' over that distance.  In other words, it would be a run straight up a mountain, and time was ticking.  So I put my heart rate into Zone 5 and took off up the trail.

The footing was great at the bottom, but it quickly turned into broken rock and scree, so I kept moving as fast as I could, even if that was a power hike.

When I got to the top, the trail ends at a rock face, about 10' wide and fairly steep, with dropoffs on both sides.  I started climbing on hands and feet to get up to the wide open views of this bald peak before turning around, lying on my back up against the rock, and essentially standing straight up.  My heart started racing as the Smokies took up the space around me, and I had this whole forest at my feet.  It was the coolest feeling.

The views from Chimey Tops:

After carefully climbing down the rock face, I sprinted back downhill, my quads screaming for mercy that they wouldn't get until the drive home.  It was one of the greatest days of running of my life, and cemented the fact in my mind that I need to live in the mountains.  Hopefully Colorado or northern California, but really any mountains with hiking/running trails will make me ridiculously happy.  I want this feeling every day of my life.

Monday, May 14, 2012

DWD Gnaw Bone 50 Mile Race Report

Gnaw Bone 50 miler is the first race where I reached the finish line and felt neither relief, nor happiness, nor a sense of accomplishment. Instead, I felt broken and spent, physically and mentally. There was nothing left to give or to get from this race. I gave it all I had and it took what it wanted. I left blood on the trees, sweat on the dirt, and curses in the air. To put it plainly, I got everything I paid for at Dances with Dirt.

The race organizers claim that this race has “a few stupid parts” and “crying is allowed”. A vignette to illustrate: At mile 49, my quads were the latest muscle group to cramp, sidling up with the clique of ‘mean parts’, along with the catty hamstrings and groin. I’d reached The Plunge, a (now-defunct) blue-square-rated ski slope that dropped 200 feet in elevation -- no trail cut -- just slippery mud and grass for ¼ mile. Though the finish line was neither within sight or earshot, I convinced myself that if I could suffer down this hill, the end was right around the corner. 

The Plunge: Yet un-ripened by runners here
When I hit the bottom, only shoulder-high grass and a narrow path spread out before me. My knees were blown and ‘trotting’ is a kind way to phrase what I was doing. The path dipped down into the creek, and I was running through ankle-to-knee deep water, my killswitch engaged, my body a “foul rag and bone-shop”, to steal a W.B. Yeats phrase. I came out on the other side of the creek and saw the finish. A smile forced its way into my mouth, eyes a-glazed, shark-dead. Finally, I crossed the finish line. I exhaled, put hands on knees, shook my head, and tried to delete the pain, like a 3am nightmare that upon waking, seemed like a repressed fantasy.

But let’s go back to the start.

My morning started at 4:20am, waking from the back of my Honda Element at my campsite in Brown County State Park, sleeping in the cab of my futon-cushioned car rather than the tent because, frankly, it was easier. This proved a fine choice since a large group of loud, obnoxious dudes played music and partied all night just a few sites over.Morning came and with it my camping treat: French press coffee. I boiled water in the camp stove, poured it into the press with Seattle’s Best, and enjoyed the steaming cup with Corn Flakes and a Greek Yogurt, and then drove to the race start.

I saw Jon, whom I’d met running the Poto as well as at Winona Lake 50M and Trail Marathon 50k, and he talked about the shoe-sucking muddy miles at the beginning of the race, so I made a last-minute decision to change shoes at the car into my trusty 350+ mile Saucony Xodus 2.0 runners, laced tight. After hitting the loo, I headed to the start, hearing the RD call out 5, 4, 3, 2, WTF! I gotta get to the start! I hopped the flags, crossed the start chip timers, and tried to find my running pals, Jonathan Clinthore and Jason Robertson.

We chatted up the first hill, a mud sucking rise where we climbed over a few downed trees, one of which took its first blood (Rambo-style!) from my knee. When we’d reached the ridge line, back on single-track trail, we continued to climb, rather steadily but not steeply up to Playground aid station. At this point, Jon pointed out that we were 1-2 in the race, which cracked me up a bit.  Turned out that the guy who won here last year, Joshua Wopata, got to the start last minute to register and would pass us later on, despite the delay.  He'd go on to win like 30 minutes ahead of everyone.

For the next several miles, we ran with an echelon of 4-5 runners, two 50kers and three 50Mers. The conversation centered on whether we were still on course, since every race report I’d read was about how EVERYONE got lost at some point. Jon and I seemed to be the only ones who wanted to talk out on course, so we chatted running, work, and everything in between. I knew I was running too fast, but this stretch of 8 miles was highly runnable and I felt great and I wanted to run with other people because it helps the miles fly by.  Ogle Lake was gorgeous, with mist rising off it and air perfectly still.

Ogle Lake dam

At Hesitation Point (10 miles), a few in our group stopped off to their drop bags, but I didn’t need anything, so I kept going down a long, steep downhill, which also featured our first bush-whacking section, leaving the perfect single trail and darting into the raw, unbroken woods. This was just a teaser of what’s to come, quickly connecting back to single-track MTB trails that were relentlessly up-and-down along this gorgeous ridge-line, but incessantly taxing on the legs with the up and down.

This other 50M guy was tailing me the entire time, quickly catching back up to me after I dusted the aid stations, then hanging off my coattails, never passing, so I thought we’d be running together the entire race. He said nothing, just sat there tapping out the miles. Well, ok, everyone has their style, but this guy seemed like the sniper in Full Metal Jacket.

Around mile 13, we hit this section where the trail markings showed a pink arrow to the left, but our pink flags to the right, plus there was this other guy running back toward us, everyone confused about where to go. Dude running toward us said he’d go up this other way to find pink flags, but then we saw Jon and a couple 50k guys going the other way so we joined up with them. It’s all part of trail running, I get that, but damn it was confusing.

Anyway, after we caught back up with Jon and the other guys we got to the first major bush-whacking section. The trail went straight up an unimproved, raw-woods section on this hill that was no longer runable. We’re talking about briars, branches, poison ivy covered ground, straight into the forest, using hands and feet to get up. The power hike was a dear friend here on the way to Aynes House.

Aynes House to North Tower is foggy in my mind, so I’ll refer to the course description.
“Difficulty is all in your attitude: A - Solid mountain bike trails with exceptional views or B- Feels like there is no way out and no relief.” First time through this section I felt like A, second time through I felt like death, er, B.

From North Tower to Hoosier’s East aid station (and 2nd drop bag) brought us to mile 20 and through another one of the toughest parts of the course. More bush-whacking, no footing since it’s running through the middle of the woods, and ridiculously steep hills. I knew this was draining my legs, but there was no way around it because it was so steep even a slow hike was tough. Good news: somewhere along the way here I found a crusty folded up $20 bill that looked like it had been there for years -- I’m rich!

Finally we reached the ridgeline and Hoosier’s East. Jon and I were running together now and I’m not sure what happened to everyone else, just that it was the two of us left. We were feeling pretty confident, chatting away and saying that the RD, Randy Step, puts on a good show, etc when we missed the turn, of course. We’d run down this long steep gravel road and got to an intersection with no flags. Shit. So we turned around and ran back uphill, almost all the way back to the road at the ridgeline, where we saw the flags head back into the brush, off the nice trail we were following. 

Brutal. More climbing over fallen trees, terrible footing, steep pitches that were hardly runnable, even being downhill, and you had to keep your eyes on the pink ribbons tied to trees or get lost in the middle of nowhere. All this in order to reach what I thought of as Jacob’s Ladder, a set of 160 stairs that climb back up to another ridgeline at the Nature Center, where we were treated to a mile or so of paved road before heading back into the hills and reaching Playground aid station. Now I’m betraying this first loop, where I was having fun, sharing some laughs with Jon and feeling really good, just thinking ‘man, this is really hard’.

Playground (mile 25) is where 50 milers could drop down to 50k, and according to the Running Fit volunteers, many people took this option. But we flew through there and onto the 2nd loop, talking and running and enjoying the woods. I noticed I wasn’t peeing enough, so I started taking down a lot more fluids, but in the end, I was too late on this. Should’ve gone with two handheld bottles rather than one because of the humidity and temps rising into the 70s, which isn’t scalding, but hotter than what I’ve been running in lately.

At Hesitation Point, Jon and I both switched shoes “to get some new and different hot spots for a while” as he put it, and I grabbed salt tabs and GU brew to nix the dehydration issue arising. We headed downhill, through the brushy section, and back to the roller coaster MTB section. And here’s where I learned the most about running long. It can all change in an instant. At around mile 34 I was having more trouble on the climbs staying with Jon. My heart rate and RPE were way too high for even easy hills, and I couldn’t get my breathing down. I knew it was dehydration, and I’d been trying to stave it off, but by mile 36 I pulled the plug and told Jon I was falling off and I’d see him at the finish line.

Hesitation Point
At this point, I went into training mode, telling myself, ‘just keep moving forward, control your breathing, and take in as much fluid as you can.’ The smallest hills were a struggle, and I actually looked forward to the really steep stuff so I could power hike and not feel so bad about not running like I knew I was capable. My Garmin was mocking me and I was glad to see it die at mile 44 so I didn’t have to watch my pace slow to a crawl.

The aid station volunteers were awesome; they were so encouraging and helpful, filling my bottle and asking what I needed, but for some reason they didn’t have a new pair of legs and lungs hiding behind the GU gels. Dudes, come on, I need you here.

By mile 40 my breathing was better but now the cramps were setting up camp in my groin, so I could only climb the downed trees by leading with my left leg, but the front of my right ankle was in pain, so I could only land hard on the downhills with my left leg, so I hobbled about in this manner for the next 5 miles. I was on the section of the course that I knew from the first loop, so I didn’t make any navigational mistakes, but I also knew all the terrible sections that were coming.

The heat had risen and the deer flies were out, circling my head and dive bombing my flesh while I trudged up the mud-and-shoe-slicked hills, hamstrings and calves cramping along with my groin, death march in full effect.

At the Playground aid station, they told me I had 6 miles left, and when I gave the volunteer a look of horror, he said, “um, just under 6 miles, like 5.6 miles! Oh, and you’re in third!” I thanked him for that courtesy, but the race finale was playing out like a Puccini opera -- I’m thinking Tosca here -- where everyone gets killed, and even though Scarpia gets the knife, you know Cavaradossi is going down too, and Tosca is not making it out of the tower alive. Um, *spoiler alert* there I guess (from like 1900).

The quads joined the ‘mean parts’ clique, and I made it to the final aid station at mile 47.2, running along a ridge line horse trail with mud sucking sections, more fallen trees that I would get halfway over and bear-hug for a while, then plop back into the mud. Then came The Plunge ski slope and I was totally wrecked, dragging my sad sack to the finish where I congratulated Jon on a great run and great 2nd place OA finish for him.

I headed to the creek for an ice bath and Jon brought me the champagne of beers, which no doubt was the best tasting Miller High Life I've ever had. After cooling off for a spell and sharing war stories with other finishers, I sat at the finish line and cheered athletes into the finish while enjoying several Sierra Nevadas and Bell’s Kalamazoo Stouts. 

Perhaps the best part of the whole event for me was sitting at the finish line with a great group of trail runners, enjoying pulled pork sandwiches and beer under the sun and having some laughs while yelling encouragement for the muddied, bloodied ultrarunners and the wacky, costume-donning relay teams coming across the finish line, and especially for those coming in close to the cutoff with looks of pain much more severe than my own. That was awesome.

The Shot-Ski: Relay-ers finishing the race together

Thanks to Jon for running 36 miles with me, to Jason Robertson and his wife Arden for the campfire and the stories, to the guys from Kentucky at the site across from me for jump starting my car at 9pm the night before the race, to Leslie and Lori from RUT for the entertaining stories, to Scott and Chris for cheering everyone in with me, and to everyone at Running Fit for putting on a real good show at Dances with Dirt Gnaw Bone.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Rev3 Knoxville Oly Tri Pro Race

Last weekend I had the pleasure of cheering on my wife, Alaina Case, in her first race as a professional triathlete at Rev3 Knoxville, an Olympic distance triathlon.  I want to capture my experience seeing the front of the race up close and some thoughts on how the pro race is different than the age group race that I've both watched and competed in.

Rev3 does a nice job celebrating the professional athletes that choose to compete in their races.  For example, we arrive on Friday at the expo and start/finish area in Worlds Fair Park in downtown Knoxville -- a beautiful location for this event -- and Rev 3 has a large electronic billboard showing pictures and names of the pro's racing that weekend.  Alaina's picture pops up almost right when we got there, and the smile on her real face is even bigger than the one on the jumbotron.

After packet pickup, we pre-drove part of the course, and Alaina rode one of the more technical descents since that is one element of the course we can't practice in Michigan.  I think that doing this type of recon and practice is crucial for building confidence on race day.


On Saturday afternoon, there is a mandatory pro meeting in a VIP tent, where seasoned pros like race winner, Greg Bennett, and crowd favorite, Amanda Lovato, as well as first timers like Alaina gathered to hear clarifications on the stagger rule and other rules of the race.  I imagine that for the vets, this meeting seems like information they've heard a million times, but for someone like Alaina, it is the first time she is gathered together as a part of the pro field.  It serves as her official entry into the elite club, and that's a special moment.

Meanwhile, I enjoy the expo, trying on some Normatec boots for recovery from my Smoky Mountain run that morning, and eating sugary carb goodies from the vendors from Powerbar, and then playing with some dogs at the US Pro Tri tent.  Expos are fun, especially without racing nerves!

Fast-forward to race day.  The pro's have a separate, fenced-off racking area in transition for their bikes, and behind each of their spots is a picture with their name.  I thought this was cool because not only was it good hype for the pro's, but it also gave them name/face recognition for many AG athletes who might not know a pro in their sport if they were standing behind them in the loo queue.  Transition area for this race is inside a parking garage, about 1/4 mile from the swim exit, so it's a long run into T1.  One of the biggest differences between the pro's and AGers is how they deal with the long transitions.  More on that later.


After Alaina sets up transition, I walk with her down to the swim start, which is about 1/2 mile down the road.  Some of the pro's (look for the P on the back of their calf where age group numbers would've been) are running down to the start despite the fact that there is plenty of time to warm up in the water.  This is to warm up their legs for the bike/run, since the Olympic distance is so short and they'll be performing at near 100% effort from the gun.

The pre-swim staging area is abuzz with nerves and chatter, same as the AG start, only here is two-time Rev3 Knoxville winner, Matty Reed and his wife and toddler, and over there is bike slayer, Andrew Yoder, and down there is gazelle runner, Kelly Williamson, all fine-tuning their wetsuit fit.  Imagine if you could sign up for a baseball tournament, and before the game you lined up for batting practice behind Alex Rodriguez or Ryan Howard.  Triathlon has a great setup in that you can walk up to any pro in your sport and say hi and good luck on race day, and then compete on the same exact course as them.  Yet only a handful of age groupers there actually did just that from what I saw.  Even at a race, the pro's go largely unnoticed or strangely ignored.

After the National Anthem, the male pro's are in the water, and when the gun goes off, the water explodes in a fury of arms and legs.  Seeing Alaina in the water with the female pro's, ready to throw down with the best in the race is awesome.  And I start to realize how the pro race really is different.  With a small field like what I am seeing here, there will be virtually no legal draft, on the swim or on the bike.  You will know exactly how you stack up against the best at that race on all three disciplines, and no matter how fast you are as an age grouper, you may finish dead last on this day.  To quote Pre, the pro race is a "pure guts race."

I head to the swim exit at U of T boat house to catch the male pro's out of the water.  Cam Dye leads the way and he is sprinting up to T1.  He leaps all 3 steps and takes the fastest tangents into the garage.  In a flash he's at my back on his bike and hammering from the start.  All the other top pros follow suit, male and female.  This is a huge difference from what I see in the age group race, where athletes are lightly jogging, taking water from the aid station, fumbling with equipment, etc.  Ultrarunner, Geoff Roes, says that it's not about how fast you can move through the fast parts of a course, but how quickly and efficiently you can move through the slowest parts of the course.  And transitions are most certainly that.

Alaina comes through and I give her a big cheer and snap a few pics out of the swim and onto the bike.  I take a walk through UT campus during the bike segment on a perfect Tennessee day.  In less than an hour I'm back at the T2 exit and watching the male pro's come out of the parking garage onto the run course.  Again, they are blistering fast, snagging some water with an explosion and powering through at ~5:30/mi pace.  They carve out perfect tangents as machines of efficiency.

The female pro's attack out of T2 as well, and I mark Alaina's place and time behind her closest competitors, giving her this information and cheering her onto the run.  She's ~22nd out of 25, 13:00 down on the leader but less than a minute from three other women, and she looks really comfortable now, ready to claw her way up the standings.  Which is exactly what she does, running a blistering 39:xx and finishing her race with power and a huge smile.  I'm so proud of her it's hard to put down in words.

Alaina had a rough patch in the swim, didn't execute the start of the bike the way she wanted, but put her race together on the back half of the bike and killed the run.  That takes pure guts in your first pro race, and I'm proud to call her my champion.  Can't wait to see what she does in at Rev3 Quassy Half-Iron.

After the race, I hung out in the VIP tent with Alaina and she shared "war stories" with other male and female pro's and we thanked the Rev3 organizers for the home stay and putting on a great race.  I'm not too big to say that sitting at a table next to Greg Bennett and Richie Cunningham, with Andrew Yoder across the way was also really really cool and a highlight of my weekend.  Thanks to Rev3 for putting on a top notch race experience.

alaina rev