Saturday, June 30, 2012

Looking Skyward

Colorado is on fire.  We are all hoping for rain without lightning and a return home for evacuees.  The images of billowing smoke thousands of feet above the mountains are straight out of an apocalyptic graphic novel. And it's all too likely that these are only the beginning, unfortunately, with the hot, dry trend so far this summer.

It tears right into the gut.  Please, please bring rain.  

It is possible that the Leadville Trail 100 might not be held this year.  This area could be either unreachable or directly affected by fires. So I'm preparing a backup plan, the Woodstock 100 miler, which is practically in my backyard, and it's held in September, so my fitness would be right there without too much re-building or having to peak again.

For now, I'm sticking with the Leadville plan, which calls for a three week build, then one recovery week, followed by two more build weeks, and then a two week taper.  The one week taper, of which I'm a big fan for races of up to 6 hours, was not enough for Mohican, and will certainly not be enough for a first 100.  And anything more than two weeks would be too long, so that's the plan.

I'm going to take a page out of Ellie Greenwood's playbook, since she recently shattered Ann Trason's 18-year-old Western States 100 record just three weeks after finishing 2nd at Comrades 56-mile ultramarathon; for between the two races, she did some power hiking, but no running.  The work is done once I arrive in Colorado, two weeks before the race, and I can only dig into my readiness by going crazy and running mountains when I arrive.

Back to the trails.

Every other day, I try to run the trails at Cedar Bend and The Arb, for they are loaded with hills, most of which are runnable but challenging, and some that demand a keen power hike, which should be good Pb-ville training.  I can run from my door up to the Huron River base of Cedar Bend in 2 miles, with a mile of that on trail.  Yesterday, I hit these two adjacent parks, plus one loop of the flat Barton Nature area as a cool down, for a very tough 20 miler in 85 - 95 degree heat.  Although I fell behind on salt and hit some really low spots energy-wise, I didn't give up on this run and pushed through the heat, reminding myself of something Kilian Jornet said about the strongest muscle you need in a 100 mile race is your mind.

Here are some pics from yesterday's run:

Cedar Bend is a wayback machine.  Love the old, natural hand rails.

Ancient looking steps from Ann Arbor's oldest park

Kayakers enjoy the heat on the Huron River at the base of Cedar Bend

The Arb lookout

Arb trails: pines, hills, single track, beauty

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mohican 50 Mile Trail Race Report

We begin in darkness and work our way into the light. The path ahead is unknown, relying on others to guide our way. Volunteers will point out the trail, but we also follow the herd. The goal: separate yourself, by charging out in front or gradually finding your own rhythm. Many will stumble early and draw young blood. Others are not long for this race. We "run with the hunted", says Bukowski.

The darkness takes our sight, so other senses take over. The legs feel it the most, since they’re taking the heaviest load. Mine are wobbling like a fawn’s, unused to the rocky footing, with ancient rock gulping for air at the surface of every step. The trail continues to rise and the pack stretches out, desperate mice trying to keep up with the next critter’s tail. The Mohican 50 mile trail race has begun.

Race morning 

It was a weekend of firsts. And isn’t that why I started doing ultras this year? To run new trails and take myself to places I’ve never been before?

I like lists, so here’s a list from this weekend titled ‘The first time I...’:

Started with 100 mile runners
Started a race in the pitch black
Negative split an ultra
Made like a bear in a race
Finished 2nd place overall at a 50 miler

The best thing about firsts is how deeply they engrave the memory. My DNF at Huff 50k was a first of those and I’ll always remember what it felt like to be so completely sure that I should drop out because of health/safety reasons, yet so defeated at the truth. Whereas the first time I won a race solo -- Woodstock trail half-marathon -- realizing with electricity coursing through my veins that I really held onto the lead to the finish line, well, I’ll never forget that feeling either.

Lining up for my first race among 100 milers, despite the fact that I wasn’t competing against them, is also a moment I’ll not soon forget. The gear we wore was all within the same range. Some had hydration packs, others two handheld bottles, some less, some more. Most had head torches since the race started at 5am (sidebar: said hour is for demons, only). But the real difference, as is true in so many cases, was in the eyes.

The difference between a 50 and 100 mile runner is the former comes to the start with nervous energy, while the latter has the mark of the grave reality of the trail ahead. This especially hit home because I have Leadville 100 coming in 9 weeks, plus I knew several 100 runners in the corral behind me.

When the RD counted us down, I felt more like a 100 runner. I remembered how deeply Gnaw Bone 50 miler crushed my legs and my will a month ago. This reminded me to start easier than everyone else in the front and stick to my plan. If I could stay hydrated and start easy, then I might just have a chance at running the last 10 miles strong.

Race Start

We started out through the campground and onto the flat paved greenway, then some single track, then more asphalt for the first 1.5 miles. This allowed the field to thin out and gain position before heading into the trail. My 160 lumen Petzl MYO RXP2 head torch was brighter than almost everyone else’s out there, and I felt a little over prepared, until we hit the single track and I saw 2 people eat dirt and rock, coming up with bloodied knees and dirtied shirts with 48 miles left to run.  The value of the light cannot be overestimated.

As soon as we hit the trail, we came to the hills. I was probably in top-10 at this point, and I watched most everyone haul ass, running uphill, while I set immediately into a mean power hike, only falling back a few seconds from the next guy up while saving valuable energy. But it’s hard to remember your plan, no matter how far/long the race. Too easy to get caught in the mice mentality.  Maybe it was lucky that I was held back by some terrible feeling legs.

I’ve had a great month of training over the last month since Gnaw Bone. But during the last week leading up to Mohican, my quads have been extra stiff and my knee has had some ITBS-like soreness, which I attributed to the taper week when my mind becomes a tick, waiting for some blood to latch into. So I blew it off and thought everything would be great come race day.

After 45 minutes, nothing had improved south of the hips, so I let the 5 or so front guys go, latching on to a couple 100 mile runners, one of whom, Harland, had won this race in ‘07. We chatted a bit about races they’d done and the beauty of this course. When I told them I was doing the 50, they told me I should be up there with the other guys. “No, I don’t" I quipped, "hopefully, I’ll see them at mile 45.” That got a few chuckles. A few miles later they stopped at Fire Tower aid to refuel and I never saw them again. Unfortunately, they were among the 60% of DNFs on a very hot day.

Alone now, it was time to settle into the All Songs Considered podcasts, for I had a strong sense that I wouldn’t be running with anyone over the next 7 hours. I’d fallen into the gap between the leaders and the rest of the pack. This is the nature of the trail race. It’s kind of like starting at a new school. Groups form. Sometimes you fit in. Sometimes you’re on your own.

On the trail, you can’t see more than 50 feet ahead most of the time so you never know if another runner is right around the corner or miles away. Motivation sink quickly and you feel like you’re on a raft, paddling out joyfully to the middle of the lake, only to discover a leak and the realize that the swim back is at the edge of your limits.

If I’m totally honest with myself, I was slipping into a bad mood. I should explain. I love trail running. I luff it. I lurve it. I have to make up new words to describe how deeply it makes me happy (my Annie Hall homage). I’m taking a break from triathlons because I’m sick of riding bikes near cars, of staring at the black line at the bottom of the pool, of the dullness of the asphalt beneath my running feet. Oh, I’ll come back to it, for going fast is very fun, but I needed a break.

But I was not having fun today. What was up with that? I wanted to do this race as a tuneup for Leadville 100 mile trail race in August, but as the race approached, I wanted to do really well. I’d looked at the finishing times in the past and I knew I had a shot. Today was just one of those days where it took all my energy to do either one or the other, but I couldn't seem to do both.

As I moved through the course, going from aid to aid, all of which were 5-6 miles apart, focused on draining my hydration pack, pacing well, and quickly refilling my supplies, I kept thinking, why aren’t I having fun?! Has the competitive drive sucked the fun out? Is it my crappy feeling legs? The shooting pain in my knee? The incredibly stiff quads that would cause me to ditch this if it were a training run in an instant?

The trail swerved off the single track down into this beautiful green gorge that looked just like the gorges in Ithaca, where Alaina and I lived for a summer and where Alaina went to school, so this section took me down memory lane and distracted my mind with a swirl of new and old memories for about a mile. Plus I was running back and forth across a stream, so the footing was extremely rocky, slick, and tricky. I danced, climbed over trees, and finally came upon the Queen’s stage of the race. The hand-over-hand ladder root climb that was great fun. I clambered up, thinking of how much Alaina would love this challenge.

The Root Ladder

The course climbed up out of the gorge until I reached the top of Pleasant Hill dam with some great cheering spectators, so I took a quick minute to look around at the vista of this beautiful park and appreciate the support.  Then I bombed down the stairs and grassy section to the creek below, where I was surprised to see a large group of (Amish?) people fishing quietly at this perfect spot.

But the glow of the gorge and dam sections did fade as the course afterward kept going up and down relentless hills and my legs continued to suffer. Normally my legs are ready to fire like crazy most of the way through the race, and then they crumble like overbaked birthday cake. But today they were shit from the start, and rather than warming up, they just hurt more. My right knee was in deep pain around the cap and my usual loosening strides didn’t help. I think this really got into my head and beat me down for the first 27 mile loop.

Coming into Covered Bridge aid station, the volunteers were awesome, helping me find my drop bag and refilling my hydration pack.  These guys were pro's!  I shouted out my number -- 420, man! -- and headed up a gnarly hill of switchbacks that put my hands on my quads and into a power hike.  Gradually the trail became much more runnable as I approached the Hickory Ridge aid station

As I came into the start/finish area, I had some good thoughts, knowing that even though my body wasn’t responding the way I wanted, at least I really wasn’t slowing down pace-wise according to my Garmin. And then I looked behind me and saw this guy with a yellow, 50 mile bib number come sprinting down the hills. I was crushed. What the fuck was he doing there. I haven’t slipped in effort or pace, I thought i’d gapped everyone behind and everyone in front had gapped me. This sucks.

Alaina and Cody were waiting at the start/finish before the 2nd loop, and they got my gear together in record time. She told me I was in 5th, and I grimaced, knowing I was about to fall back to 6th. I headed out to the greenway, and then to the single track. I remembered the long climb over the first 3 miles of the course from the dark hours of the morning, and I’m here as witness to say they didn’t get any easier in the light.

My mind reeled in frustration. The training was there. The taper was there. I’m in better shape than in Gnaw Bone but there was no pop in my body. I looked back to see the same dude running 100 feet behind me. I slowly climbed the next hill and he caught me. I pulled off the side of the trail and let him pass, keeping my back to him. This completely sucked. I was now in 6th and he was trotting off uphill. My body hurt, my mind was blown and I was thinking of quitting at mile 31, in like 1 mile.

But then I said to myself, you weak little asshat. You’re going to let this kid punk you like that? You’re going to just pull off and die at the side of the trail like some diseased animal? Don’t be a bitch, man, get back into this thing, catch that dude, and run your ass off. You only have 20 miles to go!

So that’s just what I did. I took a pack of GU chomps, struck off to catch this guy, and found his heels in about a mile. Yes, I was back into the race. He was hiking most of the climbs, and I noticed he didn’t have any hydration with him. It was getting into the 80s now, I was wearing my Ultimate Direction 64oz pack and barely staying on top of my system’s needs. I knew he wasn’t going to make it. So I put the hurt on, ticking the legs over as I’d been practicing for months now on every single hilly trail in my area. I wanted him to know that he’d have to crush himself to keep up.

And I never saw him again. I was all alone, back in 5th place, and gunning for the next guy. A Springsteen line rang in my ears, "Got a head-on collision, smashin in my guts man".  At mile 35, a distance that usually breaks me, I noted that my effort and my legs felt stronger than ever. My mind said to hell with the knee pain and all that whining. You’ve trained your ass off for this race, you’ve figured out your weakness -- going out too hard (not today!), and falling behind on fluids (nope!) -- and this is YOUR day, so fuck that noise.

At the start of the Breakwater half-Ironman triathlon in '09, I witnessed a beautiful moment between a father and his 7 year old daughter just before we got into the water. He, in his swim cap and goggles, took her face gently in his hands, pressed their foreheads together, looked her in the eyes, and said to her, “Never Give Up”. She screamed back at him in her tiny kid voice, “Never Give Up!” and then he took off for the water.  I now have the phrase on my Road ID and I wear it every single day. I glanced at it now and took off down the trail.

As I approached the Covered Bridge aid station, I prepped my gear to get light and fast for the last 14 miles.  I dropped the hydration pack in my drop bag, grabbed my handheld bottle with GU brew, shucked my shirt, and loaded my pockets with GU chomps.  It was time to fly on home.

Covered Bridge

I started coming up on the marathon runners who started at 8am, and I was feeling the adrenaline of passing and encouraging them. At mile 40, a spot of red appeared up on the next hill. A red I remembered from those early dark hours, and he was cracked. His entire body was slumped. I heard a voice higher up the trail, a spectator, that shouted something down to the red guy, who responded “I’m going at max speed!” The moment was mine, as I passed and hustled on, driven by the thought that he might find his second wind as I had found mine.

The miles started turning over now that I was in 4th place and gaining momentum. The hills, the rocks, the roots, all were floating under my feet which were running on muscle memory now. Two miles passed without seeing anyone else.  Maybe everyone else was too far away.  Nope.  The next guy I saw brought some lysergic flashbacks of the early morning when I joined the 100 milers and he passed me to catch the lead pack. I hung on his heels for a few minutes, watching him desperately try to hold me off, but I knew the hills were my home, Brer Rabbit thrown to the briar patch.

I overtook him for 3rd place and figured that was it for me. A podium spot and a dream come true. Mile 45 buzzed on my watch and I remembered the conversation I’d had at 7am about seeing the leaders at this point. "It's all happening" says Penny Lane from Almost Famous. At this point, my old friends, the deerflies, came out along the unshaded areas and distracted me from recognizing another yellow bib at mile 47 just up ahead. It wasn’t until I cleared his wake along another uphill that I realized I was now in 2nd place.

A fiery cartoon head appeared at my shoulder, reminding me of what happened at this point in the course on the first loop. This is when the unexpected competitor caught me with my guard down. Don’t let that happen again. I targeted 8-9 minute per mile pace, running well outside my comfort zone for a trail this hard. The downhills back into the campground were pounding my quads, yet I remembered how much worse my legs were at the end of Gnaw Bone. I’d paced this right! The finish was less than a mile away!

The heat had driven spectators away from their campsites now, and the last mile was one of quiet, desperate pain. Keep going, never give up. Just ahead I could see the finish banner. As I made my final turn, the only voice I could hear was in my own head. ‘You did it.’ I saw Alaina stand up quickly alongside the finish line, obviously shocked by my arrival. The announcer said, “here comes our 2nd place 50 mile finisher” and I was a firework, ready to burst into color. I screamed “YES!” as I crossed and reached down to hug Cody and Alaina, overwhelmed at the realization that I’d overcome my lowest point in perhaps any race and my greatest triumph in defeating my own desire to quit and admit defeat.

Mohican 50 mile trail race: 7:54 for 2nd place overall.  9:29 minute per mile average pace.

50 miles!

Pure happiness at the finish

The race organizers had free, open taps of Great Lakes Brewing beer for everyone, racers and spectators alike, and after enough recovery and food, I grabbed myself a Doppelbock and soaked in the emotion.

I caught up with Jon’s crew and waited for him to come through the aid station to wish him the best, as he would be finishing his 2nd loop of 4 in the 100 mile race. Chatting with other finishers, we congratulated each other and shared war stories from an absolutely brutal course that was at least as hard as Gnaw Bone, with the Garmin showing 8,000+ feet of elevation gain and my memory reminding me of the jarring terrain.

2nd overall with a $150 paycheck in hand

Eventually, after seeing Jon come through and sending him on his way -- to a 3rd place overall finish for the 100 mile(!) -- we picked up some pizza and my drop bag and went back to the campsite for a quick nap. Awards were at 7pm, so we went back to the start/finish and found some shade and for me a few more beers before the announcements. Cody kept trying to say hi to this guy lying in the grass who turned out to be Peter Hogg, the 50 mile winner (beating me by 30 minutes no less), and we chatted for a while before the awards. I’ve never met a more humble and unassuming fast guy in my life. Hoping for plenty more good results for him, he deserves them.

We finished the night off with a great campfire and a good night’s sleep, unfortunately not being able to see all the 100 mile finishers being just too tired. Congrats to all the runners at the unrelenting Mohican trail: Jon, Jason, Matt, Mark, Chris, Kai, Melissa, Farra, and everyone else I’m forgetting.

Bring it Leadville, I'm ready for anything!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mohican This Weekend

The trail to Leadville continues this weekend with my third 50 miler, this one down in lovely Loudonville, OH at Mohican State Forest.  Oh, you've never heard of Loudonville?  It's right between Millersburg and Mansfield!  That should clear it up.  Drive to East Jeebes and take a left.

The forecast keeps looking more furnace-like, as is the story of this entire year in the midwest.  Last I checked we were looking at high 80s on Saturday, and with aid stations 5-6 miles apart and word around the campfire that the race organizers aren't too good about stocking ice on course, well, conditions are going to be tough for the 50 milers and killer for the 100 milers.  I'm definitely using my Ultimate Direction Wasp hydration pack, which holds 64oz, and the plan is to drain almost all that between the long segments.

I have two goals this weekend: start slow and chug water + salt.  If I do these two things right, everything else will fall into place.  My fueling -- aside from dehydration issues -- is pretty solid for the 50 mile distance.  Namely, gel and/or GU Chomps every 30-45 minutes, with some solid food at the aid as I can take it.  The training is there for a decent showing, especially in my first year doing ultras and still working on my endurance run base.

Over the past month since Gnaw Bone I've had a few key workouts that highlight a very successful training period with consistently high volume, if not always very high mileage.  And by that I mean that I haven't broken 100 miles per week yet, which I consider the standard for very high mileage, which I'll be putting in after Mohican in my last build periods before Leadville.

Gnaw Bone 50 miler took a full week for my sticks to recover, so my mileage was very low due to residual pain and fatigue.  But the following week I was starting to run pretty well, and I had a 4 day weekend around Memorial Day weekend, so Jon and I were finally able to run Stinchfield Woods together, and I think he liked the long hills, variety of terrain, and remote locale as much as I do.  We ran 18 miles, the same distance as the full loop of the Potto, but according to Jon's Garmin 310XT, Stinch has more vert, by around 1500' vs 1800' which is what I suspected from how much more my legs are crying after a Stinch run.

The next day, we ran a circuit in Ann Arbor that I've been wanting to connect since I started seriously running trails around here last fall.  We did Argo/Cedar Bend/The Arb/Bluffs/Kuebler/Bird Hills/Leslie for 27 total miles, with probably 3 miles of that being on paved path and the rest all trails.  Starting from my house.  Not damn bad for living in a "city".  Here's The Garmin Connect data for the Ann Arbor run.

This niche little midwest town has some seriously tough terrain if you seek it, and Jon's Garmin registered 3400 feet of elevation gain.  That's great Leadville training in my book.

The other key training run was in Connecticut, where Alaina and I drove to watch her race in Rev3 Quassy, her first Half-Ironman as a pro.  She totally killed the bike and run on this absolutely brutal course, with steep, incessant hills and technical bike turns, taking down at least 5 other finishing pro's to finish 12th female pro with a time of 4:58.  So proud of her for overcoming a rough swim, sticking to her strengths, and crushing dreams while plenty of other females DNF'd the very tough race.  Go Alaina go!

A few days before her race, I found a few mentions of Mattatuck trail online, and it was supposed to be the gnarliest, most technical, hilliest trail near Middlebury, CT.  And it did not disappoint.

Although I did get a little lost driving there, as the parking lot I expected to exist, um, did not exist, I eventually drove by a sign that said Mattatuck Trail, so I found a parking lot nearby and hopped onto the trail.  Did I mention it was raining?  No?  That's because it was pouring.  I was drenched the moment I left the car, and probably had about 30 minutes of non-rain run.  In other words, it was awesome.

The short version of the run: I went into the woods.  It was  really hard.  I had fun.  The End.

Longer version: Many parts of this run were simply not runnable.  Roots, boulders, rock, mud, more rock, sections so steep that running downhill was slower than running uphill -- all this combined to make Mattatuck trail one of the hardest and most rewarding runs I've ever done.  The peaks were rock outcroppings with brilliant views of the surrounding area.  I saw no one for 4 hours.  I got lost then found myself.  I felt like I went back to pre-historic times because of all the ferns and exposed glacial rock.  Something in the woods shook the water off an entire tree, then did the same to a series of huge trees when I coughed and it ran away and I got really really scared and ran faster.

Along with Red River Gorge and the Smokies, this was one of the best runs I've ever had, and probably one of the most strikingly memorable experiences of my life.

The next day, as Alaina headed out on the bike portion of her race, I ran a hard and steady 17 miles on roads, covering most of the run course and part of the Greenway trail in Middlebury, CT. My legs were a bit cracked on the back half, but I kept up a steady effort and had fun running on roads for the first time in months.  The day before I'd covered 17 miles in 4 hours on trails.  This day I covered 17 miles in 2 hours on roads.  That's good fun.

I know that I'm ready for the Mohican 50, and all I need to do is execute with these feeble brainz and I'll have a fun race, a great time, and some memories forever.

In terms of music news, I bought my Saturday ticket for the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago -- where my brother just moved! -- in July and I'm in for some fantastic music and a great time with my brother.  I'm stoked for Cloud Nothings, Atlas Sound, Lotus Plaza, Cults, Youth Lagoon, Flying Lotus, Sleigh Bells, Chromatics, Hot Chip, and Grimes.  Damn, that's gonna be really fun.  Samples of those I haven't posted below.

Atlas Sound -- Te Amo

Youth Lagoon -- Cannons

Cults -- Abducted

Sleigh Bells -- Infinity Guitars

Hot Chip -- Over and Over