Monday, June 22, 2009

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. For example, up until Wednesday afternoon of this week, I had no clue that I would be running a 50K on Saturday. Seems like kind of a weird thing to just sneak up on ya, huh? It’s not like the local 5K where you can just decide the morning of the race to go ahead and do it. A 50K is a little more involved; something you would generally want to plan for. Well, here’s how it happened.

I knew that once Boston was over, I wanted to set my sights on running my first 50 miler. I ran the Lean Horse 50K in Hot Springs, SD, at the southern edge of the Black Hills, back in August of 2007. I knew after that that a 50 miler was probably in my future and Lean Horse seemed like as good a place as any to do it. But, the whole Boston thing (both qualifying for and then training for) got in the way in 2008. I knew that after April 20, 2009, I would be free and clear to obsess about something, anything, else. The 2009 Lean Horse Half Hundred became my primary post-Boston goal. As I was considering how to prepare myself for such an adventure, the idea of running a 50K as a tune-up came to mind. The most logical choice for that was the Big Horn Trail 50K, in the Big Horn Mountains near Sheridan, WY, on June 20th. I spent a good part of the winter trying to decide if I really wanted to commit to Big Horn or not. After waffling back and forth several times, I finally decided to do it, went to the online registration site and… had filled up the day before. Idiot! Thinking I might still be able to sneak in, I filled out a paper registration and mailed it that day, feigning innocence about the race being closed. Over the next 5 months or so, my credit card was never charged nor did my name show up on the confirmed entrants list on the race website, so I accepted the fact that I had waited too long to make up my damn mind and that Big Horn would have to wait for another year.

Fast forward to the afternoon of Wednesday, June 16th. I’m sitting at my desk, busy as a beaver (or something like that) and I get a phone call on my cell. I glance at the caller ID and see the Wyoming area code (yes, THE area code…..around here there’s just one for each state). I don’t really know anyone with a Wyoming number, but I answer it out of curiosity. It’s a lady with the Big Horn Trail races, wondering if I would like to be kept on the waiting list. Waiting list? There’s a waiting list? My mind spinning, I say “yes” and she says they’ll call me back when they figure out who’s out and who’s in. Immediately, a million thoughts assault my brain. Where will I stay? When will I go? What does the course look like? Am I trained for this??? As I’m furiously prowling the internet (which qualifies as limited personal use of government equipment, in case you’re wondering) for race and lodging information, my phone rings again and again flashes a “307” number. I answer and it’s a different lady who now says they have a spot for me if I want it. I don’t know, do I? Before the angel on one shoulder can come up with a good reason not to do it, the devil on the other shoulder says “yes” and suddenly my weekend plans have changed just slightly.

Back to the question of “Am I trained for this?” Well, it depends, I guess. I was probably just as ready as I was for my first 50K, but not as ready as I might’ve been if I had known about this, say, more than 3 days before the race. Like I said, I had originally penciled this race into my training schedule and have been slowly working my way into ultra training ever since Boston. I say “slowly” because my post-Boston recovery took a little longer than I expected and because I also tapered for and ran a half marathon PR at Deadwood-Mickelson two weeks ago. So, just as my weekly mileage was getting back up near 60 and I was starting to develop my back to back weekend long runs, I tapered for and recovered from Deadwood-Mickelson and then last week started building the mileage, and long runs, back up. Since Boston, I’ve only really run three runs that I would consider long mileage wise: a 17 miler (on trails), a 23 miler and just this past Sunday, a 22.8 miler (which was preceded by a 13 miler the day before). But, I’ve done a few other runs that were long time-wise (2.5 hours+) but where I didn’t get as much distance because they were on fairly rugged trails. As the name “Big Horn Trail Run” implies, most of it is run on trails, so my training seemed somewhat appropriate. If I were to train specifically for a 50K, I probably wouldn’t run 22+ miles six days before the race, but in the spirit of using Big Horn as a training run, I wasn’t too worried about that. I did fret about how much I should run in the last couple of days between finding out I was going to run and actually running. I ended up taking Thursday off completely, thanks in large part to the fact that the race personnel had called me just after I’d gotten done playing basketball for an hour at lunchtime, the result of which was that I had knot in my left calf and what felt like a sprained little toe (pinky toe?) on my right foot (if only they had called BEFORE lunch). I did go out for a very easy 5 on Friday morning, which is basically my regular pre-marathon routine.

As for the logistics, I found that it was actually very easy to find a hotel room in Sheridan. I went cheap and booked a room at the Motel 6. The race itself is headquartered in Sheridan and that’s where we had to go to check in, but it actually finishes about 20 miles northwest in the tiny town of Dayton. The start line for the 50K is 40 miles (driving distance) further west in the Big Horn Mountains. This meant I would have to drive from Sheridan to Dayton in the morning and then catch one of the busses to the start. The morning drive would be a minor inconvenience, but considering that lodging and dining options were severely limited in Dayton, it seemed like the best plan.

Sheridan itself is about 200 miles from my location in South Dakota, which equates to a little under 3 hours of driving at South Dakota/Wyoming interstate speeds. I left Belle Fourche just after lunch on Friday and made it to Sheridan in plenty of time to check in and drop off my drop bag. I half expected to get there and have them look at me like I was stupid and say “you’re not signed up.” But, everything was in order. I hit up Dominoes (bread bowl pasta) for dinner and Wal Mart for some last minute supplies and breakfast items and then it was back to my luxurious accommodations to watch some TV and veg out for the rest of the evening.

The Big Horn Trail Run is actually quite a big event in terms of the amount of stuff going on at once. They have 100 mile, 50 mile, 50K and 30K races. The 100 milers start on Friday and everyone else starts on Saturday, with the start times of the Saturday races staggered by 2 hours. There are three separate start lines (50K and 30K share one) but all four races finish at the same location (Scott Park in Dayton). The whole schedule is rather masterfully laid out so that the majority of the runners finish within a specific time window on Saturday, allowing spectators to see runners from the various distances finish. The 50K started at 8:00, but I had to be in Dayton by 6:00 to catch the bus to the start line. Let me tell ya, it takes a school bus a lllllloooonnnnngggg time to drive 40 miles on mountain roads. It was on that bus ride up the mountain that it started to dawn on my just what was in store. We went a long ways up. Of course, we wouldn’t run back down the highway, but we would have to get back off of these mountains in some way, shape or form.

Like I said, the 30K and 50K share a start line. In order to get the necessary mileage (or kilometerage, I guess) the 50K starts off with a 20K loop that heads west away from Dayton for awhile before looping around and joining the 50/100 mile course and then going back east past the start line and along the 30K course to Dayton. The elevation at the start is 7,650 feet. I live at just over 3,000 feet, so I knew this would probably be a factor. The course tops out at 8,100 feet during that 20K loop. Of course, since it’s a trail run in the mountains there are some hills to contend with, but overall the 50K (and, more so, the 30K) are downhill, with the finish line in Scott Park sitting at 4,150 feet. For the mathematically impaired, that’s 3,950 feet of elevation loss from the high point to the low point. Can’t you just feel your quads burning?

I killed some time chatting with some other runners from the Black Hills area (there were a lot of us) and before I knew it, it was time to start. Some lady yelled for us to line up behind her because she was the start line. Okay. With a descending 10 count, we were off.

Dry Fork to Dry Fork
The first 20K loop took us from the Dry Fork aid station, up a big damn hill, back down the big damn hill to the Cow Camp aid station and then along a four wheel drive road back up to Dry Fork. Immediately after the start we were all walking/power hiking. The better part of the first two miles was spent doing this. Finally, we topped out and one could reasonably run, although there were some more ascents that called for more power walking along the ridgeline. I noticed a fairly annoying headache along this stretch and contributed it to the fact that I hadn’t had any coffee that morning and my caffeine addicted body was pissed about it. Luckily, I had an espresso Hammer Gel in my pack, so I took that and it seemed to help. After 3 or 4 miles, we started our descent, which featured mostly single track trail with some cross country running (fortunately, the course was well flagged in these sections). This was the first part of the course where I really started having fun….running down single track through dense timber and open meadows. I finally started to feel like I was actually running a race instead of power hiking one. I hit the Cow Camp station feeling good, got my bottles topped off with Heed and water and was off. I made it about a quarter of a mile down the road before I realized I had neglected to check in and out of Cow Camp. Oops. Well, I sure as hell wasn’t going to turn back and do it so I soldiered on. The stretch from Cow Camp to Dry Fork is a net uphill since we had actually lost more elevation coming down that first hill than we had gained going up. This section was mostly rolling. At one point, we crested a hill and could see Dry Fork a couple miles away and a lot of feet up. Damn. The last stretch leading to Dry Fork was another killer uphill. More power hiking. Upon shuffling into Dry Fork, I made very sure to check in and told the guy taking numbers that I didn’t think I had checked in at Cow Camp. He didn’t seem all that concerned, but at least I had done my civic duty and admitted my idiocy. In the aid station, I once again topped off my bottles. Along the way, I had been fueling exclusively with Heed, Hammer Gel and Endurolytes up to that point. A lady at the station offered me salted potatoes, which sounded pretty good, so I accepted. She proceeded to load up a dish full of potatoes, potato chips and pretzels. I thanked her, checked out of the station and was off again.

Dry Fork to Upper Sheep Creek
Upon leaving Dry Fork for the second time, we again got to go up, but this time on a different route. The course followed a gravel road for a good mile plus, all of which was uphill. This at least gave me a chance to scarf down my food as I hiked. I was kind of concerned with the amount of walking that was going on, though. While I didn’t necessarily have a hard and fast time goal in mind, I was kinda sorta hoping to break 6 hours. It had taken me 2.5 hours to cover the first 20K loop, which does not bode well for a sub-6 finish, especially when you spend the first 2K or so of the final 30K walking. Eventually, the course abandoned the road and we were back on mostly downhill single track. Once again, I was able to get into a solid running groove. This was by far the loneliest section of the course. From Dry Fork to Upper Sheep Creek I neither passed anyone nor had anyone pass me. In fact, for a majority of the time I couldn’t even see anyone in either direction. Approximately 5 miles of lonely running later, I wandered into the Upper Sheep Creek station. More Heed, more water and a handful of trail mix and I was out.

Upper Sheep Creek to Lower Sheep Creek
Immediately after leaving Upper Sheep Creek, I started catching up with the tail end of the 30K pack, who had started from Dry Fork two hours after the 50K runners. Also immediately after Upper Sheep Creek was a section of trail referred to as “The Haul”. I was running along, crossed the creek and looked up and saw the trail going basically straight up a really steep, really long hill. Good Lord, where’s the ski lift?? Well, nothing to do but get started, so up I went, passing multitudes of 30Kers in the process. Finally, I topped out, walked a little longer to get my heart rate down and then resumed running. Of course, what goes up must go down and the trail going down the other side was nearly as steep as the uphill side. This doesn’t necessarily make for fast or comfortable running. In fact, it was quite uncomfortable and not fast at all. I was trying my hardest to reduce the abuse my quads were taking, but it was tough on steep, rocky, single track trail. And, the downhill portion was much, much longer than the uphill had been. We were beginning our descent back to Dayton in earnest now. Another 5 miles later and I arrive at Lower Sheep Creek. Most of that five miles had been steep downhill, but my legs still felt pretty good. I really don’t remember much about this aid station. I think it was just top off the bottles and go.

Lower Sheep Creek to Tongue River
After Lower Sheep Creek, we entered the Tongue River canyon. This was an awesome section of trail. The canyon is very steep and very narrow and the Tongue River is fairly bloated with spring runoff this time of year, making for some awesome scenery. The trail was still going downhill, but much more gradually and it was very runnable. Approximately 25 miles into the day and I’m starting to feel really good. That is, until my left leg revolted. I was cruising along the trail, running at a fairly decent clip and suddenly it was like someone had stabbed me in the thigh. It was a muscle I’ve never had a cramp in before. Not my quad, not my hamstring, but some other muscle on the inside of my thigh between the two. I don’t know what it’s called for real, so I just think of it as my quadstring. Whatever the hell it’s called, it didn’t feel good at all. I tried to walking for a bit, but that didn’t help at all…I could barely even walk with it knotted up. Finally, I sat my butt down on a big rock and started rubbing it out. After a bit, I resumed walking and it felt better so I decided to try running again, cautiously. It didn’t seize back up and before I knew it, I was cruising along again pain free. The next aid station was only a couple miles away and marked the end of the trail running for the day. The Tongue River station is also the 26.2 mile point of the 50K course. I had largely been ignoring both the mileage and time on my Garmin ever since the end of the first 20K loop, but I did glance at my time here and saw that I was just under 5 hours and had just under 5 miles left to go. Providing my quadstrings didn’t have any more nasty surprises in store that seemed very doable. At the Tongue River station, I again just topped off my bottles and went. As I held my water bottle out to the dude with the big jug and said “water please” he just looked at me like I was dumb and then asked “you want water?” I looked at him like he was dumb and said “yeah”. Then I looked at my bottle and realized the lid was still on. He couldn’t very well take it off since it took both of his hands to prop up the huge jug he was dispensing water with. I guess we established who was dumb at that point in the day.

Tongue River to Home Stretch
After Tongue River we were off the trail and onto a gravel road that would take us all the way back into Dayton. I’d heard about this road as being the worst stretch of the course because it’s hot and boring. It actually didn’t turn out being as bad as I’d feared. For one, the road starts out in the canyon for the first couple of miles, so it’s still shaded. For another, this is where I finally got a chance to stretch my legs and RUN. As I was cruising along, I glanced at the avg. lap pace on my Garmin and I was suddenly laying down 8:30 mile pace after more than a marathon of rugged running. WTF!!?? Oh well, nothing to do but go with it, I guess. There’s no saving it for later, after all. Just as I was about to catch up with a guy I know who was running the 30K, it happened again. My quadstring, this time in my right leg, cramped hardcore. I walked/hobbled for a bit before finding an electrical junction box to sit on and rub it out. More walking, then shuffling and then running again and I was back up to speed. I caught up with the guy again and charged ahead. It was only another couple of miles to the Home Stretch station, where I didn’t even bother to top off my bottles. I hadn’t had a chance to drink much since Tongue River and we only had a couple of miles left. I just checked in and was gone.

Home Stretch to the Finish
After leaving Home Stretch I noticed a guy in an Alaska biking jersey ahead who I knew was in the 50K. I had been passing tons of 30K runners and a few 100 milers, but hadn’t passed any 50K runners for a long time. I was still cruising at 8:30ish pace, so breezed past the Alaska guy. I knew there was one more 50Ker up ahead not too far because he and I had traded positions a few times already and he had last pulled ahead at Lower Sheep Creek. As I was wondering how far ahead he might be, I realized that the guy running about 20 yards ahead of me was the guy I was looking for. I cruised past him too and had about a mile to go. Then I felt it again. First it had been my left quadstring, then my right, now my left was getting pissed off again. NO!!! I just passed two 50Kers, I’m not gonna lose those positions again! I did some brisk walking to try and calm it down, which actually helped this time. I didn’t dare walk too long though, so I resumed running and the quadstring obliged. Before I knew it, I was being ushered around the final few turns by some volunteers and was back in Scott Park. The final stretch took us around the park’s bike path. Here I was, 30.9 miles into a 50K and feeling AWESOME. I kicked it in to some cheers from the assembled crowd and was done.

Final Time: 5:46:52
Overall Place: 10th out of 140
Sex Place: 7th (the top two overall in the 50K were women, both of whom broke the women’s course record)
AG Place: 5th out of 23 (the top ten was stacked with dudes in their 30s)

The friendly finish line volunteers immediately gave me my reward for running 50 kilometers. No medals at this race, but instead we got a nice long sleeve Saucony running shirt with the race logo and “50K Finisher” on the breast (we also got a short sleeve running shirt in our race packet). I immediately walked down the bank to the Tongue River and stepped right in, shoes and all. The water was insanely, heart stopping cold. It felt awesome. After soaking my sore ankles and calves ( I was too chicken to go all out and get the quadstrings submersed) I sloshed my way back to my truck, changed my shirt, ditched my wet shoes and socks and grabbed some sandals before heading back to the park for the post race picnic. I hung out there for awhile, ate a burger and a lot of watermelon, and watched for people I knew coming across the finish line. I looked on jealously as they gave out AG awards. The “trophies” were these really cool big river rocks with the race logo etched into them. If only I had been in any AG besides the one I am in…. The only negative thing about the whole day was the drop bag situation. I had left one at Dry Fork with dry shoes and socks because I had been told it would be wet and muddy. Turns out, it wasn’t that bad and I didn’t even need the drop bag. But, I did end up having to hang out at the park until past 7:00 waiting for the drop bags to be delivered (I finished just before 2:00).

So, wow, I don’t even know how to sum this whole thing up, but I’ll try anyhow (this novel has gotta end somewhere, after all). This is an incredible race and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more beautiful course anywhere. When I was brave enough to take my eyes off the three feet of trail in front of my feet, I was awestruck. Besides the drop bag thing, the organization was top notch. And, it didn’t hurt that I just had an awesome day on the trails. Never have I felt that good that late into a race. I never really felt all that bad the entire day. I kept expecting the blowup to come, but it never did. I’ve only run one other 50K and I ran that one almost exactly one hour faster than this one, but this course was much more of a “true” ultra course; this one was magnitudes of difficulty higher and I cruised through it. The whole point of this slightly unexpected adventure was to get myself ready to run a 50 miler in August. This is by far the longest I’ve ever been on my feet in one stretch and I still felt relatively fine at the end of it. So, in that regard, it was about as successful as can be. Yesterday’s experience did exactly what it was supposed to; give me confidence that I can indeed run 50 miles. I think I like this ultra thing. I think I like it a lot.

I'll close with this. Words can't do this course justice. So, instead, here's a link to a photojournal put together by a lady who ran the 50 miler last year and took 60+ photos along the way. Awesome stuff.

1 comment:

chirunner said...

Congrats on your successful unplanned run. Keep up the good work. Lean Horse will be here before we know it, and it looks like you're right on track. Thanks for your blog posts.

I'm soldiering on, but have been losing the injury battle lately. I'm at the point now where I absolutely have to take some time off from running. I'll get on my bike for a couple of weeks and hope that will help my running injuries heal. I've got two marathons under my belt in the last 6 weeks, so my 50 mile preparation is decent. Hopefully, the rest will help my body and I can get in some more decent training during July.

One way or the other, I'll make it to the start line in Hot Springs. I hope to be able to meet you in person.