Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Leadville Trail 100

Sometimes you don’t realize how much something has consumed you, has driven your decision making, either sub-consciously or overtly, until it’s gone.  For me, that something has been the Leadville 100. Since the day I registered on January 1st, I’ve had one focus and one focus only: train for Leadville.  At some point in the last days before the race I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I had slept past 5:30 AM.  Most normal people cut loose a bit on the weekends, stay up late, drink a few beers and sleep in the next day.  I was typically in bed by 9:00 or 9:30 and up at 4:00 to squeeze in 5-8 hours of running.  Add in real-life stuff like coaching baseball, softball, football and basketball and just trying in general to not become some dirty, stinky-ass, half-stranger to your family, and some weekends became quite the juggling act.  I’d like to think I made it through without putting running first more often than not but, in reality, training for an ultra is a fairly selfish act.  If you’re going to do it right (as in, if you’re going to train at a level that will actually prepare you for the race), you’re going to make some sacrifices in other parts of your life.  Hence stumbling out of bed at 4:00 AM on a perfectly good Saturday morning and pondering the absurdity of the entire endeavor.  Truly, the running part of training for a 100 mile race is easy.  It’s the logistics of putting in the time that’s hard.  Lucky for me, I have an incredibly understanding and supportive wife (who also happens to be a runner, which helps) and two kids who have never known anything different….I think they assume that the amount of running that their parents do is par for the course for ALL parents.   

While I certainly trained hard for my other two 100s, I don’t know that the same level of focus was there.  Both of them, Lean Horse and Bighorn, were somewhat of a known quantity since I had run shorter distances a those events before and was familiar with the respective courses.  Leadville was a whole other beast; an almost totally unknown nemesis.  While I had seen a couple of sections of the course from a vehicle a couple of years ago, I had never really set foot on it, much less run any of it.  And then, of course, there’s the elevation.  The city of Leadville itself sits at 10,200 feet.  The “low” point of the course is 9,200 feet.  Upon reaching said low point, you immediately ascend to the high point of 12,600 feet.  That’s no joke.  I mean, trees don’t even grow up there for Christ’s sake.  That should probably be a clue of some kind.

So, with a healthy respect and a good bit of fear of the Leadville course, I set about training the best I knew how with the trails available to me in the Black Hills.  The training itself really wasn’t all that different from what I did for Bighorn last year.  In fact, I did a lot of cutting and pasting from my Bighorn plan when I sat down in February to devise my Leadville schedule.   I upped the weekly miles a bit and vowed to do as many of the long runs as possible on trails, a vow I ultimately did a fairly good job of keeping.  The simple fact is that there is no way to simulate the high altitude of Leadville in the Black Hills.  I figured the next best thing was to get my legs and lungs used to running up and down hills and hope for the best.  Crow Peak, just outside of Spearfish, became one of my go-to trails for achieving max elevation gain (and loss) per mile.  Three or four consecutive summits of Crow always left my legs feeling pleasantly jello-ish, but at the same time every time I set foot on the summit and saw the sign that said “Crow Peak Summit, 5670 Feet), I couldn’t help but think that the race I was training for STARTED at almost twice that elevation.

Despite the uncertainty of just how I would be able to handle a course at such high altitude, I set a big goal for Leadville:  finish in under 25 hours.  At many 100s, sub-24 is the de facto “big” goal; finish the race in one day.  I guess at some point the organizers of Leadville decided its difficulty warranted an extra hour to earn the “big buckle” (which is, in reality, quite large).  I figured if I was going to go, I was going to go big.  But, at the same time, heeding the advice of others who had run the race, I was also planning to run smart; to not chase the sub-25 goal too aggressively and subsequently not finish at all.  With a typical finish rate somewhere in the 50-60% range, just finishing Leadville isn’t a given by any means.  I certainly didn’t intend to invest several months and 1800+ miles of training, not to mention a good bit of money in the form registration fees, shoes, clothing, food, travel, etc. to come home from Leadville empty-handed, with my first ever 100 mile DNF hanging over me.

While the actual running of a 100 mile race can be a solo endeavor, and my first 100 at Lean Horse was completed entirely solo, sans pacers or crew, many participants bring along a cadre of crew members and pacers that assist the runner at designated stops along the way and run/walk along with the runner in the 2nd half of the race.  Ultra races are designed in such a way that having a crew isn’t necessary; you can get by just fine on the supplies provided at the aid stations.  But, having a crew allows you to have your own personal items and volunteers to cater directly to your needs, not to mention the oft-overlooked advantage of seeing some familiar faces every few hours.  Pacers can be an even bigger help, especially in an event such as Leadville.  At most races, the act of “muling” (i.e., the pacer carrying supplies for their runner) is strictly forbidden.  Hell, it’s forbidden at the Black Hills 100, the race that I co-direct.  Leadville is one of, if not the only, exception (I don’t know of any others off-hand).  In a nod to the old-time hardrock miners and their pack burros that the race was inspired by, pacers are allowed to carry anything the runner wants them to, with the exception of the runner themself, of course.  Besides that, it doesn’t hurt to have someone with fresh legs and, more importantly, a clear head to accompany you in the middle of the night after 15+ hours of running.  For Leadville, I put out a call for help that was graciously answered by running friends Carolyn and Neil, who offered to crew (they both still think the actual running of a 100 mile race is totally insane, but I’m convinced I can turn them toward the dark side).  I was also able to line up two pacers, Johnathan and Mike.  In a nod to the unselfish nature of ultrarunners, and runners in general, Johnathan was on board to pace two separate sections (about 20 miles total) just a week before his first 100 mile race at Lean Horse.  Mike happily agreed to pace me the last 13.5 miles after already pacing another runner, Nick Clark, who would end up finishing 2nd overall, earlier in the night.  And Neil, who is recovering from Achilles surgery and was not really planning on pacing at all, jumped in to join for a bit as well.  Maybe all of us runners, and ultrarunners especially, are totally insane in the eyes of the non-runners out there, but you’ll never meet a nicer, more selfless group of crazy-ass people in your life.

I made the trip down to Leadville in two parts, driving as far as Fort Collins, where I bunked at Mike’s place, on Wednesday night.  That left me with a short 3 hour drive to Leadville on Thursday.  As luck would have it, my friend Paul was hired on by Lifetime Fitness, which organizes the Leadville Race Series, in June and he and his wife Katie had offered up their couch for the weekend.  I happily accepted as I had quickly discovered upon registering for the event that lodging in Leadville during race weekend was a book- a-year-in-advance kind of deal (small, old mining town with 2600 residents + a couple thousand runners/crew/family/friends = zero lodging).  Besides the big advantage of being free, the ability to relax in a house rather than a hotel room (or tent) can’t be understated.  And, I got to play Chutes and Ladders  and Candyland for the first time in forever (thanks Wilson!). 

As for altitude acclimation, there seems to be two schools of thought.  Either get to high altitude 2 or 3 weeks in advance and train there or get there within a couple of days of the race and dive into the deep end before your body realizes what the hell you’re doing.  Obviously, I chose Option B and hoped for the best.  I spent Thursday getting checked in at race headquarters and doing some shopping downtown.  Friday was the pre-race briefing and expo and just general sitting around and making sure all my gear was organized.  Neil arrived Friday afternoon and we went over my planned arrival times at each crew location and what gear I might need.  With a fairly ridiculous start time of 4:00 AM, I headed off to bed fairly early, around 9:00 and was actually able to sleep pretty well, right up until my 2:00 alarm. 

After getting dressed and eating some breakfast, I found Johnathan sleeping outside in the yard, having arrived overnight along with fellow Black Hills residents Jim and Sara, who would be pacing/crewing for another friend of theirs.  I caught a ride to the start line with them and milled around a bit until it was time to line up.  Often, in those final moments before the gun fires, I find myself wondering what in the hell I’ve gotten myself into and questioning why I’m really about to put myself through this.  At Leadville it was different.  I was very calm and relaxed and just ready to get going.  In no time, we were off.

Start to Mayqueen (0 to 13.5 miles)
The race starts off with a few miles of downhill along paved and then dirt roads exiting Leadville before jumping onto the rolling, but mostly flat, single-track trail around Turquoise Lake.  One piece of advice I’d heard from many sources was to not go too fast on this section, which is fairly easy to do with the downhill and adrenaline of the start working in conjunction.  I did start out fairly fast on the roads, but didn’t feel like I was really overdoing it too much.  Once on the Turquoise Lake trail, you fall into a conga line of 900+ runners and passing can be difficult.  I tried to be patient when the pace slowed along this section, but there were moments when the pace started to feel ridiculously slow and I ended up jumping off trail to pass clogs of runners.  I’m not sure how many times I repeated the phrase “On your left, thank you”, but it was a lot.  My goal was to reach Mayqueen at 6:10 AM.  I got to Mayqueen at 6:10.  Woulda been a few minutes faster if not for a stop to crap in the woods along the way.  Off to a good start.  Because I’d heard that the congestion here was a real bitch in the morning, I had told my crew to not even bother and just meet me for the first time at the second aid station, Fish Hatchery.  So, I made quick trip through the aid station and grabbed some M&Ms and a PB and J for the road.

Mayqueen to Fish Hatchery (13.5 to 23.5 miles)
This section features the first real climb of the race as you exit Mayqueen campground and climb Sugarloaf Pass via the Colorado Trail and Hagerman Road.  My legs were feeling good and I ended up running much of the trail section and then falling into a run/walk along the road.  The climb went by fairly quickly and it was time to descend the infamous Powerline.  As the name suggests, the descent into Fish Hatchery is along a powerline corridor that is washed out in many places and features a few steep pitches alternated with flatter, easier downhill running.  This section would become the bane of my existence later on, but early in the morning it all felt fairly free and easy, although I did have to make another stop to crap in the woods (this would be last one of the day, thankfully).  My goal had been to reach Fish Hatchery by 8:05 AM and I rolled in at 8:13.  If not for that crap, I would’ve been nearly dead on again.  I found my crew (or, more accurately, they found me) right away and quickly refilled my hydration pack and restocked the fuels I had consumed (I was going off of GUs, Clif Bars and Honey Stinger waffles for the most part).  They also had a PB and J ready to go, which I took for the road.  In no time I was out and on my way for what I was hoping would be a quick section to Twin Lakes.

Fish Hatchery to Twin Lakes (23.5 to 39.5 miles)
There is actually another aid station (Half Pipe) in between here at about mile 29 and a crew location  a couple of miles before that, but I had told my crew to skip ahead again to Twin Lakes to try and avoid congestion.  I anticipated that this section would go by fairly quickly since it starts out with a few miles of paved and then dirt roads, all of which are fairly flat.  Oddly enough, this was the first time all day that I really started to feel like the elevation was affecting me.  Those road sections just were not as easy to run as they should’ve been and I ended up taking some unplanned walking breaks along the way.  After the Half Pipe crew zone, the course takes to some two track trails through the Half Pipe aid station and then eventually on to the Colorado Trail again.  I was still struggling a bit to find a rhythm along the road section, but finally found the groove once I hit the single track.  The thing about it was that I didn’t seem to be the only one struggling in this section….everyone around me seemed to be in the same boat.  Regardless, by the time the trail descended into Twin Lakes, I was feeling really good and, although the section overall felt ridiculously slow and it felt like I had lost a ton of time, I came into Twin at 11:19, compared to my goal of 11:10, so I’d basically only lost one additional minute.  Given that all of my goal times for the day were fairly arbitrary and unscientific, I was totally fine with that.

Cruising Through Half Pipe (photo courtesy of Jim Hadd) 
I did have a moment of near-panic when I couldn’t find my crew right away upon arriving at the aid station.  The thing about this aid station is that it’s friggin huge.  You pass through the aid station tent itself (which I passed straight through without grabbing anything) and then continue along some roads that are lined shoulder to shoulder with waiting crews.  Before long, I ran out of road and was being ushered onto the trail exiting the aid station, but still hadn’t seen my crew.  I now faced the dilemma of turning back to see if I had just missed them or continuing on.  As I paused to consider the options, I heard Carolyn’s angelic voice calling my name (seriously, the amount of relief I felt just then was substantial).  They were positioned just down the trail from where I was, along the exit from the aid station.  Neil had been positioned somewhere earlier, but we had somehow missed each other.  No big deal in the end as Carolyn and Johnathan quickly got me refilled and refueled and set me up with my trekking poles and stuffed a jacket, hat and gloves into my pack for the ascent up and over the infamous Hope Pass.

Twin Lakes to Winfield (39.5 to 50 miles)
This is perhaps the most iconic section of the Leadville Trail 100; the climb up and over Hope Pass (and then back up and over).  At 12,600 feet, it represents the high point of the course.  Just below the pass itself is the Hope aid station, often referred to as “Hopeless”.  Aid station supplies for Hope are carried up the mountain on a pack train of llamas, creating the surreal experience of ascending the trail above treeline to come into a field of grazing llamas.  The climb starts after the only real creek crossing of the day just past Twin Lakes.  After running the flat trails to the base of the Hope climb, it was pure hiking mode after that.  I put the new trekking poles to good use but was quickly feeling the effects of the climb.  This was the 2nd time that I felt like the altitude was taking a toll.  Granted, this climb wouldn’t be all that easy at lower elevation after 40 miles, but being at 10,000+ feet certainly didn’t help.  It felt like I was absolutely crawling up that hill, probably because I damn near was.  I just didn’t have any push in my climbing legs.  I stopped a few times to drink some water and at one point forced myself to choke down a GU, which took some considerable effort, but it went down and, more importantly, stayed down.  My stomach felt fine, and had all day, I just didn’t have much of an appetite at that point.  Just below tree line the race leader at the time, Mike Aish, came bombing down the hill.  Not long after, Ian Sharman ran by in hot pursuit (he would eventually pass Aish and hold on for the win). 
Llamas at Hope Pass (photo courtesy of Jim Hadd)
My totally arbitrary and unscientific pace chart had me arriving at Hope aid station at 1:20 PM.  My actual arrival time was 1:47.  Lost a bit of time there, but was still well ahead of sub-25 pace, which would’ve put me there at 3:07. Upon arriving at the aid station, a friendly medical lady took one look at me and asked me when the last time I’d taken any salt had been because I had a lot of salt on my face.  Near as I could remember, it was down at Twin Lakes.  She didn’t seem too satisfied with that (in fact, her exact words were “Oh, shit”) so she stood and watched while I swallowed an S-cap and then she mixed up a concoction of Ramen noodles and instant mashed potatoes with extra salt added in and watched me drink that.  While I was hanging at the aid station for a bit, Nick Clark came through in 3rd and looking pretty strong.  Wanting to get the rest of the climb over with, I washed my soup/potato/salt concoction down with a cup of Coke before sneaking out of the aid station.  Despite how lifeless my climbing legs had felt the entire way up, the moment I hit the top of the pass I was able to start running down the other side and ran basically the entire way down, pausing only to get out of the way of runners on their way back up.  Not long after cresting the pass, the first runner I saw coming up was Hal Koerner, who was pacing Scott Jurek.  Damn, running these big name ultras is a like a who’s who of ultrarunning!

By the time I got down the other side of the pass to the new Winfield trail, I was feeling pretty good again, but at some point along here I realized that I had made a totally stupid and careless mistake up at the Hope aid station.  Upon arriving at the aid station, a volunteer had asked me if I needed my pack re-filled with water.  I reached back to feel how full the hydration bladder was and it felt almost full, so I declined.  Well, turns out that what I had felt wasn’t the water in the bladder, but my jacket and hat and gloves bundled up in the exterior pocket.  By the time I got down to the Winfield trail, my hydration bladder was in fact almost empty.  I guess I was drinking more water than I had thought, which was a good thing, but now I was almost certainly going to run dry before the Winfield aid station, which wasn’t so good.  As it turned out, I only ended up going about a mile and a half without water, so not a huge deal, but it also could’ve been easily prevented.

Winfield is a ghost town that springs to life for the Leadville 100 and was quite the madhouse when I arrived.  From all the crew reports I’ve heard, including the account of my own crew, getting into Winfield with all of the race traffic was quite a chore.  In fact, at one point my crew was so concerned that they wouldn’t make it into the aid station before I arrived that Johnathan jumped out of the car and took off running the last couple of miles to the aid station, hauling a bunch of random crap he thought I might need with him.  Thankfully, another crew who had gotten past the gridlock stopped and gave him a ride and by the time I got there my entire crew had made it in.  My projected arrival at Winfield had been 2:30 PM and I arrived exactly at 3:00, not bad considering I had already been behind my projected time leaving Twin Lakes and spent a little bit of extra time at Hope.  I’ve run 50 mile races (Quad Rock and Bighorn) in longer than 11 hours, so the fact that I was able to cover the first half of a 100 in exactly 11 hours was encouraging (or, it meant that I had gone WAY too fast). 

Re-stocking at Winfield (honestly not sure who took this picture)
Immediately upon arriving, I was told I had to weigh in.  The scale showed me down 8 pounds from my pre-race weight, a fact that earned me a dirty look from the otherwise nice-looking old lady who was recording weights.  She told me to get into the aid tent and eat and drink, which I promptly did (she seemed serious and I wasn’t about to argue with her).  Johnathan followed me into the aid tent, where I grabbed a cup of ramen noodle soup and some Coke.  As I fumbled around with my trekking poles and two cups, I told Johnathan to hold the soup cup for me.  Not having been brought up to speed yet on the allowance of muling at Leadville, he immediately said, “No, I don’t want to get you disqualified.”  Ah, so innocent.  I smiled and told him it was perfectly legit and was, in fact, encouraged here and that he would be carrying much more than a cup of soup for me in the very near future.  Upon that news, we quickly transferred all of my extra gear (jacket, hat, gloves) to his pack, leaving me with just my water pack and trekking poles.  Carolyn and Neil had my pack ready to go when I exited the aid tent and with that Johnathan and I were off to tackle the 2nd half of the race.

Winfield to Twin Lakes (50 to 60.5 miles)

It’s amazing how having someone with you can take your mind off of things and just make you feel better.  Granted, by the time I reached Winfield I was feeling pretty decent anyway, but having Johnathan along for the return trip over Hope helped take my mind off the fact that I did indeed have to make a return trip over Hope.  Although the climb back up is shorter, it’s also steeper, but we made fairly good progress.  And although Johnathan was pacing for the first time in an ultra, he took to it like an old pro, subtly reminding me every 15-20 minutes that I should probably drink some water, or take an S-cap, or eat a gel.  I didn’t always feel like doing any of those things, in fact sometimes I wanted to stab him in the eye with a trekking pole, but knowing that it was for my own good, I grudgingly obliged.  I won’t say that the climb back up Hope was easy, but it certainly went better than the first climb had.  As soon as I hit the top, I thrust my trekking poles back at Johnathan for him to carry and ran down into the aid station, feeling much better than I had the first time I had arrived there.  I didn’t get waylayed by the friendly medical lady this time and after drinking some Coke and ramen noodles (this would be my standard fuel for the remainder of the run as solid foods just weren’t appetizing anymore), I collected my hydration pack that Johnathan had refilled for me and took off downhill while Johnathan hung back to take pictures of the llamas (he was really excited about those damn llamas).

Descending Hope Pass (photo courtesy of Johnathan Karol) 
The descent down Hope back to Twin Lakes went by in a blur.  I ran the whole way, feeling great and passing several others who had passed me on the previous ascent.  At one point, we came upon a hiker heading up the hill, holding his bloody nose.  I paused to ask if he was okay before I realized that it was Paul, heading up to check on the Hope aid station.  We gave him crap because, theoretically, he should be acclimated by now and not suffering altitude-induced nose bleeds.  At another point in the descent I had to tell Johnathan not to pick up the glow sticks he was finding on the trail.  Being the Good Samaritan that he is, he thought they were trash and was just trying to help out.  Thankfully, he only picked up one or two before I realized what was going on.  In no time, we were back at Twin Lakes and Johnathan’s first pacing leg for the day was done.  My goal had been to reach Twin Lakes by 6:00 PM and we checked in at 6:32, basically holding the pace that I had been on for the last few sections.

I found my crew right away this time, as Carolyn and Neil were at the same place I had found Carolyn and Johnathan the first time through.  I ditched the trekking poles, gathered my jacket, hat and gloves from Johnathan and also grabbed a portable charger to charge my Garmin while I ran the next section (as an aside, this is the first time I’ve ever done this and it worked like a charm, allowing me to record the entire run on my Garmin 910….the only downside was that I couldn’t see my time or pace while it was charging since it only shows the percent charged and time of day while charging).  I also grabbed a handheld bottle and filled it with Coke as I was done with GUs or any solid food at that point and wanted to have some form of calories with me.

Twin Lakes to Half Pipe (60.5 to 72.5 miles)
Heading out of Twin Lakes is a decent climb, but one that isn’t nearly as steep or strenuous as the double crossing of Hope.  I was able to hike it fairly strongly and once it was over I alternated running and walking as appropriate on the rolling sections of road and Colorado trail leading back to the Half Pipe aid station.  I didn’t have a pacer for this section, but felt fine doing it solo and ended up running a bit with other runners and their pacers.  Somewhere along this section it got dark enough that I had to dig into my pack for my headlamp and turn it on before reaching the Half Pipe aid station.  Once there, I refilled my pack with water and my handheld with Coke and grabbed some more ramen soup and some watermelon before heading out toward the Half Pipe crew zone a couple of miles past the aid station.  While I had told my crew to skip that location on the outbound leg, I decided it might be a good idea to meet them there inbound in case I needed anything.  When I got there, Neil was ready to pace the next 4 mile section of roads to Fish Hatchery, something that hadn’t been planned beforehand, but was welcome nonetheless.  Having restocked everything at the actual aid station, I didn’t really need anything at the crew zone, although I did ditch the charger since my Garmin was back to 100% and would have plenty of juice to make it to the finish.  The question was, how much juice did I have left??

Half Pipe to Fish Hatchery (72.5 to 76.5 miles)
Having just recently completed rehab from Achilles surgery in the spring and in the process of working his way back into running shape, I think Neil was a little concerned about being able to keep the pace with me.  His concerns were quickly assuaged when he realized what kind of pace it was he would have to maintain.  The miles had started to take their toll and my legs and feet just weren’t into it anymore.  We alternated running and walking down the road, maintaining something around a 15:00/mile pace, maybe just a tad faster if I hit a good little downhill stretch and was really able to hammer it (say, 12:00/mile pace).   The worst part of this section is that you can see the lights of Fish Hatchery basically all the way from the Half Pipe crew zone.  I commented to Neil more than once that those damn lights weren’t getting any closer.  He assured me that they were but, damn, it wasn’t happening very fast.

We did eventually get there, however, and it was again Johnathan’s turn to babysit me over a tough climb, one that will live in my nightmares for many weeks to come.

Fish Hatchery to Mayqueen (76.5 to 86.5 miles)
Upon arriving at Fish Hatchery at 10:27 PM (27 minutes behind my goal), I was still solidy on sub-25 pace and, in fact, was almost exactly on sub-24 pace.  But I knew that the next section would make or break my ability to achieve either of those landmarks.  The Powerline climb has crushed many dreams at Leadville.  I had heard various horror stories about it beforehand, but until you experience it you simply can not fathom how sadistically cruel it is.  Some say it has three or four false summits.  Others say there are six.  I think I lost count at 27, give or take.  I told Johnathan on at least three occasions, “If that’s not the real top, I’m going to sit down and cry”.  On none of those occasions was it the top but, to my credit, I didn’t actually sit down and cry (although I wanted to).  Also, my headlamp was starting to play tricks on me.  Stumps along the trail were turning into deer, and I saw hundreds of snakes on the trail, all of which turned out to be branches or roots upon closer inspection.  I kept repeating to Johnathan, “It’s never going to end, it’s never going to end” and “someone must’ve moved the trail markers, this hill wasn’t this long when we ran down it”.  It was, quite honestly, like one of the nine circles of Hell from Dante’s Inferno.  By the time we actually did reach the top, an hour and a half later, I was a bit out of it.  My legs were shot, my feet were raw and my brain was addled.  I wanted so very badly to be able to run the relatively gentle downhill road down the other side, but I just couldn’t run for more than 50 yards at a time.  In fact, I was having trouble just staying awake, as my headlight beam shining on long, straight, monotonous stretches of road was lulling me to sleep.  Any realistic shot I had at finishing in under 25 hours evaporated as I walked down that road, unable to make up any of the time had bled away on the trudge up Powerline.  I was able to pick the pace up a bit, and wake up, once we hit the Colorado trail again and the technicality of the single track gave me something to think about and focus on, but it was too little, too late (and not that fast, regardless) at that point. 

We rolled into Mayqueen at 2:06 AM, over an hour behind my goal time of 1:00 and a half hour behind sub-25 pace, the first time I’d been behind sub-25 pace all day.  That left me with 2 hours and 53 minutes to cover the last 13.5 miles and finish in under 25 hours.  Under normal circumstances, a ridiculously easy feat, but nothing is ridiculously easy after 86.5 miles.  Mike was waiting to take me the rest of the way into Leadville and he was much more confident about my abilities to earn the big buckle than I was, but I warned him that this last section would likely be a long, slow hike around Turquoise Lake.  Ever confident, he said something along the lines of “We won’t rule sub-25 out” and off we went.

Mayqueen to Leadville (86.5 to 100 miles)
Although by this point I had basically come to terms with the fact that I was not going home with a big buckle, I also knew that I was going to finish and probably finish with a fairly respectable time.  I was actually kind of concerned that I would finish painfully close to 25 hours and Mike and I had a conversation about how it’s almost preferable to finish in say, the 25:30-26:00 range, than to be within sight of the finish when the clock clicks over to 25:00:00.  So, yeah, I was sandbagging a bit, but the reality was that I just didn’t have enough juice in the tank to make up the time I needed to make up.

As we started the trip around Turquoise Lake, Mike initially made good on his vow not to rule sub-25 out and tried to encourage me to test the running legs.  And, amazingly, they actually responded a bit at first and we covered maybe a half-mile at a fairly respectable (for that point in the race) clip.  But, my 2nd wind (or maybe it was my 22nd wind?) didn’t last long and before long we were hiking again.  By that point, it wasn’t my legs that were the problem as much as it was my feet.  I had been feeling some blisters forming for quite some time and the balls of both feet were absolutely excruciating whenever I landed wrong on a rock or root, making it exceedingly difficult to run any kind of decent pace on the suddenly technical trail (none of those rocks or roots were there in the morning, I swear to God).  So, we spent the time hiking catching each other up on the goings-ons of the day and enjoying the view of the nearly full moon reflecting off of Turquoise Lake and, after the moon set, the brilliant starscape and Milky Way up above.  The stars really do look closer high up in the mountains, far removed from any form of artificial light or air pollution.

The long trip around Turquoise Lake actually passed by relatively quickly, but by the time we reached the roads leading back into Leadville, I had totally forgotten just how long we had to travel on those roads to reach the finish.  In the morning, on the way out early in the race, those roads had gone by in a flash.  For some reason, in my mind, I was expecting to leave the Turquoise Lake trail and be back in town soon after, but that’s not the case.  First, you have to cover a couple of miles of dirt roads before hitting the Boulevard, a three mile long, straight stretch of road that rises at a gradual but steady pitch up toward Leadville.  I honestly barely even remember running down the Boulevard on Saturday morning, but I won’t soon forget hiking up it on Sunday morning.  Like Powerline, I swore several times that it was never going to end.  I could see the headlamps of another runner and their pacer maybe a quarter of a mile up ahead of us and, every once in awhile, the headlamps would disappear, which would lead me to believe that they had reached the end of the Boulevard and turned off, which meant we soon would too.  But, alas, it always turned out that they had just disappeared over a small rise and would come back into view a short time later, revealing that I still had a long ways to go.  I knew that we should be getting closer to Leadville, but there was no indication that we were getting anywhere at all…all I could see was a seemingly never ending, straight stretch of road lined with a wall of trees on each side with no streetlights or any other indications of an approaching town in sight.  I was so out of it by this point that if Mike hadn’t been with me, I ‘m pretty sure I would’ve become convinced that I had taken a wrong turn and was not in fact even on the right road.  Eventually, though, the end of the Boulevard did appear up ahead (way up ahead) and Mike said we still had a shot at sub-26, a totally arbitrary and meaningless goal, but one that became suddenly very critical to achieve.  I couldn’t run at all thanks to the blisters on my feet, but I could power hike like a sonofabitch, so that’s what I did.

Upon reaching the end of the Boulevard, you find yourself suddenly in Leadville (after no indication that it even exists for the last few miles, it’s just suddenly there).  A left turn followed by a quick right deposits you onto 6th Street, the final stretch of road to the finish.  6th street starts of with a short hill, which means you can’t actually see the finish until you approach the crest of that hill.  I gotta tell ya, there are few sights more glorious than seeing the finish arch and red carpet up ahead when you do crest that first rise.  Of course, nothing at Leadville comes easily, so after that first rise and a subsequent short downhill on 6th, you have to finish on an uphill.  Although by this point it was obvious I would finish in under 26 hours, I initially had thoughts of running it in all the way from the top of the first rise.  Those thoughts vanished after two running strides sent bolts of agony up from my blistered feet.  Back to powerhike mode, but I vowed that, painful or not, I would run across the finish line.  As I neared the red carpet, I heard the finish line announcer say my name and “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger” playing over the PA system.  At the end of the red carpet, I started in on something that may have resembled a run.  It hurt like hell, but I did it anyway and held true on my vow to run across the finish.  25:53:14. Immediately after crossing the line, Marilee, the original race director of Leadville, was there to put my finisher’s medal around my neck and give me a hug.  She said, “Welcome home”, to which I replied “It’s good to be home.”  After that I was met by Neil, Carolyn, Mike, Johnathan and Paul and I believe my exact words to them were “Holy fucking shit.”  How poetic, huh?

From L to R: Neil, myself, Carolyn and Johnathan in the med tent post-race. 
My feet on fire and the rest of my body freezing in the pre-dawn 30-some degree temps, I made a bee line for the med tent to get my feet looked at.  The medical volunteers didn’t seem too concerned with my blistered feet, but they did take notice when I started feeling nauseous soon after finishing.  After taking my blood pressure and pulse-ox, they gave me some Tums and Carolyn brought me some chicken broth.  Those things, combined with a blanket and seat next to a heater, soon had me feeling much better and I was ready to head out for a shower and a quick post-race celebratory breakfast at the coffee shop before the crew started to disperse in their separate directions.

I guess the first question is: am I disappointed?  Short answer: no.  Yeah, I wanted a big buckle, but I also wanted a finish, and I feel like I fought the good fight to earn it.  943 people started the Leadville 100 this year.  494 finished, a finish rate of 52%.  Finishing any 100 is never a given, much less a 100 such as Leadville, so I won’t take that fact for granted.  Will I go back to try and get a big buckle?  I honestly don’t know right now; much too soon to think about that.  I don’t even know when I’m going to run again, much less what event I’ll run next.

Finisher's swag: buckle and jacket (photo courtesy of Johnathan Karol)
Physically, my legs were sore the remainder of the day on Sunday, but a couple of days later they feel fine.  My feet, on the other hand, are another matter.  I’ve suffered from blisters in each of my 100 milers now, something that I’ll have to try and remedy in the future, but I’ve never suffered like this.  Two days later and I can still barely walk because the balls of my feet are so raw and painful and my feet are so swollen.  I’m not sure of the cause, but I sure hope I can figure it out before the next one (yes, despite all this pain, there will almost certainly be a next one).

I’ve said thank you to all of these people multiple times already, but it deserves repeating here in writing for all eternity.  So, thank you to Neil, Carolyn, Johnathan and Mike for your support on the course, whether pacing or crewing.  Having friendly faces out there was invaluable, especially in the wee hours of the morning when I wasn’t quite all there mentally.  Paul and Katie, thank you for a place to sleep and cook and just hang out over the weekend.  And, last but most certainly not least, thank you to Shannon and Caiden and Chloe for putting up with my obsession and for your support.  Hey, I’m not running this weekend, we should do something!

Oh, and I slept until 6:30 this morning.  It was awesome.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Leadville Training Part 10: Taper

Well, shit, here we are.  It's Monday.  At this time next week, I will be driving (or getting ready to drive) back to South Dakota from Leadville, hopefully with a big buckle riding shotgun.  Nothing left to do now but wait for the damn race to get here already.  The physical part of the training is done, now to get through the mental challenge of the final few days before the big event.

So, I guess a quick recap of what went down the last few weeks is in order.  After the trip to Minnesota, I had planned on one more big mileage week before tapering and that's exactly what I did.  Ended up with my highest mileage week of this training cycle with a grand total of 103 miles.  That was topped off with a 40 miler on the Centennial trail.  The goal for that run was to run smart and easy and still have something left at the end (i.e., treat it as if it were a 100 mile race).  That goal was accomplished; I finished still able to run when running was appropriate and my legs were minimally tired afterward.

The next week was officially the first week of taper, but my first taper weeks are typically still fairly intense, just with fewer miles.  So, I still did some speedwork (hill repeats on the Tinton trail) and still got in basically the same mileage in the middle of the week, I just scaled it back a bit on the weekend.  I did feel the inexplicable urge to get in one last Crow Peak run before Leadville, so my long run for the week was a 19 mile Crow Peak Triple.  Seeing as I was tapering, I decided beforehand that I would run the first ascent and then take it easier on the next two.  I also decided it would be a good chance to try out my trekking poles for the first time, so I carried those along with me on the 2nd and 3rd ascents.  Once I found a rhythm with them, they seemed to help, so I think I'll bring them along with me to Leadville and have them as an option for the double crossing of Hope and then Powerline on the way back.  All in all, I ended up with just over 70 miles for the week.

This past week was a more significant taper, starting with my first rest day since the last day of June.  And, arguably, you could call it my first rest day since May since that rest day in June was occupied with directing the Black Hills 100 and wasn't really all that restful at all, even though I didn't do any running.  Truly, I don't really like rest days.  They make me feel restless, so much so that I ended up going for two relatively short (half hour each) walks just for something to do.  Ended up with about 48 miles for the week, topped off with a trail half marathon, the Victoria Secret Dirty Half, on Saturday.  Granted, running a half marathon the week before a 100 mile race may not be the smartest thing in the world to do, but I told myself I'd take it easy and I'd like to think that I kinda sorta did.  The fact that I finished 2nd overall doesn't really seem to support that belief but, really, I could've run harder than I did.  The simple fact of the matter is that the pace I was running and the depth of the field put me in the position to finish where I did, so I pushed a bit where needed to assume 2nd place and took it easy in other sections.  I finished almost exactly 20 minutes behind the race winner, who was the only one to go sub-2 (I ran 2:02:35).  Last year there were several sub-2 finishers, so the simple truth is that the field just wasn't as fast this year, and I was the beneficiary.  In any case, I don't think I did any damage and it gave me a chance to break in the new pair of Pearl Izumi shoes (EM Trail N1s, if anyone is curious) I'll be wearing for Leadville. And, I've now moved into 2nd place in the Black Hills Trail Running Series season standings, which gives me something to focus on after Leadville (incidentally, after the race on Saturday someone asked me what I had planned for after Leadville and I suddenly realized that I had no friggin clue....haven't thought much about anything BUT Leadville all year).

This week will be about as easy as it gets.  Today is another rest day, I'll put in 6-8 tomorrow and 4-6 on Tuesday and that's it until 4:00 AM Saturday.  To break the drive up some, I'm going as far as Fort Collins on Wednesday evening and then heading the rest of the way on Thursday.  I've got at least one pacer lined up, possibly two.  I've got a crew lined up.  I've got a pace chart made.  I've got lists of shit I need to pack and things I need to do before I leave.  I'm both confident and apprehensive and, more than anything, I just want Saturday to get here so we can get this show on the road!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Leadville Training Part 9: Minnesota

What better way to train for a 100 mile race in the Rocky Mountains at over 10,000 feet elevation than by spending a few days four weeks before said race at under 2000 feet elevation in the flatlands of Minnesota?  It's the reverse psychology thing....I'll trick my body into being acclimated to running hills at high altitude by training on flats at low altitude....or something like that.

One of the challenges of being a normal dude training for an ultra is that, sometimes, life gets in the way.  And, honestly, that's not even a really appropriate way of putting it, because most often "life" involves your family, and to suggest that family commitments "get in the way" of ultra training suggests that ultra training is more important, which is definitely not the case.  Let's just say that trying to squeeze in the time to have the best of both worlds can be a bit tricky at times.

Case in point, we spent several days in Minnesota last week, far away from anything you might describe as a mountain.  The primary reason we were there was to attend my father-in-law's wedding in St. Cloud, but we also transformed it into a summer vacation and stayed a few days after the wedding in the Twin Cities to check out Valley Fair, the Mall of America, and the Minnesota Zoo.  I also got to take my son to his (and my) first ever major league sporting event in the form of a Twins game (they lost 7-1, but it was still a great time).

Understandably, trying to squeeze in weekend runs of 3-5 hours in the midst of all of these other activities is kind of tough.  In fact, it just wasn't feasible at all and, knowing this, I had actually scheduled last week as a cutback week when I made my Leadville training plan way back in February.  Probably not all that conventional to have a cutback week this late in the game, just before taper starts, but it is what it is.  If I go out and set a course record on August 17th, everyone will be doing it (hell will also have frozen over, but that's beside the point).

Basically, my goal while I was in Minnesota was to get in at least 10 miles a day, and I largely met that goal.  The first couple of days in St. Cloud kind of sucked, to be honest.  My father-in-law had told me about a place called Quarry Park that had a trail network (real trails, with dirt, not paved bike paths, which are so often mislabled as "trails") and afters some quick research online it looked like a great option.  According to the website, the park officially opened at 8 AM, but I figured if I got there a couple of hours earlier I'd still be able to access the trails, assuming the park would only be closed to vehicles wanting to park there.  So, I set out running from the hotel bright and early on Friday morning with aspirations of getting in 20 miles.  Right away my legs felt like crap (not sure why) and my stomach didn't feel all that great either (again, not sure why).  It was about 3 miles along city streets from the hotel to the park entrance and when I got there it was locked up tight.  We're talking 8 foot high chain link gates and fences with barbed-wire on top.  It was only 6 AM at this point and I sure as shit wasn't going to wait around for 2 hours for the place to open, so my 20 mile run with some significant trail miles turned into a 13 mile pavement slog down random streets in St. Cloud until I eventually looped back around to the hotel and called it quits.  More of the same on Saturday morning, but at least I was able to access the (paved) bike path along the river during my 10 miler that morning.

After the run on Saturday, we packed up our stuff and headed into the Cities for a full day at Valley Fair.  We were there from the time they opened at 10 AM until the park shut down at 11 PM.  Not sure how many miles I walked that day, but let me tell ya, it was like an ultra in and of itself (with some roller coasters thrown in).  Amazingly, after the long, tiring day on Saturday, I woke up before sunrise on Sunday feeling pretty damn good.  Before the trip I had sought some trail suggestions from a Black Hills 100 participant (and our 100K record holder) and he had clued me into several good trails in the area.  Our hotel ended up being only 4 miles from one of these trails, so I set out for the Lebanon Hills Regional Park for my Sunday run.  This time I drove to the park, which "opened" (no gates at all here) at the much more reasonable time of 5 AM.  What I found was a great network of criss-crossing hiking, cross-country skiing and equestrian trails.  I ended up running 15 miles and felt like I could've spent a lot more time there just exploring the trail network.  While there was nothing there that compares to the terrain of Leadville, or even the Black Hills, I was surprised when my total elevation gain accumulated to over 1000 feet by the time I was done.  Relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, but better than nothing.  That run was followed by a full day at the Mall of America, and then the Twins game, and then some more Mall of America.  Kind of wish I had worn my Garmin the whole time just to see how many miles we covered.

Monday was our last day in the Cities and I headed back to Lebanon Hills to squeeze in 10 miles before we headed to the Minnesota Zoo and then jumped into the car to begin the voyage home.  We made it as far as Fargo that evening.  Tuesday, the last day of the trip, I didn't technically get in a single 10 mile run, but I did run a 7 miler on the mean streets of Fargo before we finished the trip home and then another 5 miles around Belle that afternoon, so the cumulative miles was over 10.  Ended up with just over 77 miles on my "cutback" week, which actually isn't too bad although there weren't any real long runs in there.

So, now I'm back in SoDak and staring down the barrel of the last real high mileage week of my Leadville training before starting the taper.  Only three weeks to go.  It's terrifying and exciting all at the same time.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Leadville Training Part 8: Pacing and Racing

While having a spouse who is also a runner is great in many (most) respects, it does create some conundrums that must be navigated around when one is training for an ultramarathon.  This past weekend was a good example.  Shannon had planned on running the Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon, which was held on Saturday morning, for quite some time.  I was planning on running the 7.3 mile Mystic Mountain Trail Run on Sunday.  Somehow, I would need to squeeze a long run out of at least one of those two days so that I could feel warm and fuzzy about my Leadville training.  After some careful thought, and channeling of my inner Dean Karnazes, the answer was obvious.  I would run the half marathon with Shannon, but I would do it twice, getting in a good long run and pacing her in the process (as an added bonus, this would also be, by far, the furthest distance we had ever run together.....well, whether that was a "bonus" per se, is up for debate, but ultimately it worked out just fine).

So, my weekend started off with a 3:00 wakeup call on Saturday morning.  Honestly, it's at those moments, and not when I'm 50 miles into a 100 mile run, when I wonder if I am truly just a little bit crazy for doing this shit.  After the requisite amount of coffee and some last minute preparations, I set off to Spearfish separately from Shannon and parked at the finish line of the half marathon.  Being an anal-retentive mileage tracker, I had decided that 30 miles on my Strava feed would look MUCH better than "only" 26.2, so I ran a couple of miles down the bike path and back before starting up the actual half marathon race course (aka, Spearfish Canyon).  The race itself starts 13 miles up the road and is almost all downhill back into the Spearfish City Park.  My "warmup" would therefore include 13 miles of almost constant uphill to reach the start line.  Now, this uphill is child's play compared to, say, running up Crow Peak four times consecutively, but it is just enough to slow you down a bit and the camber of the road got to be a bit annoying. My biggest worry going in was nailing down the timing of the whole endeavor.  I didn't want to get up to the start too soon and end up standing around and stiffening up, but I also obviously didn't want to be late for the start of the actual race.  As it turns out, I nailed it pretty well, arriving at the start with just under 20 minutes to spare.  Once there, I refilled my water bottles, at a PB and J, pinned on my bib (yes, I did register for the race), met up with Shannon and was ready to head back down.

Our goal was to run sub-2:05, which would be a PR for Shannon.  Along those lines, my job was to set the pace somewhere in the 9:30/mile range.  Secretly, I thought it might be prudent if we ran just a tad faster on the more downhill early miles, but I tried to keep it no faster than 9:15ish.  We quickly fell into a good pace as we headed downhill and started clicking off miles between 9:20 and 9:30 on a consistent basis.  Funny thing was, I had somehow tricked my mind into believing that the 17 mile warmup had never happened.  When I reached mile marker 5, I didn't think "oh, I've gone 22 miles", it was "hey, we're 5 miles into this thing".  It was only when we reached mile 9 that it occurred to me that I had just completed a full marathon.  Regardless, my legs felt fine and I tried to keep a nice, steady pace as well as I could.  Things were going tremendously well until about mile 10, when Shannon's left calf started cramping.  We took a few walk breaks to let it loosen and I was still thinking we could maybe get that 2:05 since we had built a little cushion early on, but the cramps persisted and we ended up running 2:10.  Still, not a bad effort at all. Other than some cussing and arguing about how long the walk breaks should be there toward the end, it was a heart-warming couples experience.  Well, we're still married at least.  Not sure if Shannon will accept any future offers to pace her, though.

Post-run, my legs felt totally fine and I was actually having a hard time remembering that I had just completed a 30 mile day (again, my mind kept forgetting the first 17).  I'll take that as a good sign, I guess, and it left me with some optimism about my prospects at Mystic Mtn. on Sunday.  Mystic, which was held for the 43rd consecutive year this year, is the oldest race in western South Dakota and, probably, the oldest trail race in the state.  But, in my seven years of living here, I'd never run it.  So, being a Mystic virgin, I didn't really know what to expect.  Looking at familiar names on past results, I figured that a top 10 finish and something under an hour would be reasonable.  The race itself starts near the old townsite of Mystic, of which there isn't much left nowadays.  It follows a gravel road for the first couple of miles before heading up some steep single-track on the Bright Angel trail and looping back around to the Deerfield trail and back down to the start/finish.  After a few miles of warmup to loosen up the legs, I felt reasonably ready to run hard.  Once the race actually started, I quickly found myself back in 15th or 16th place as it always takes me a little bit to get into a rhythm on these shorter, faster races.  After about a half mile, though, I started picking people off and, soon enough, had moved up to 8th place.  By that time, the top 6 were in a loose group way up ahead and 7th place was also well ahead.  Less than two miles in, and it seemed fairly obvious that my goal for the remainder of the race would be to hold onto 8th.  By the time we left the road, I could no longer hear footsteps behind me, but wasn't exactly sure just how far back the next runner was.  As we headed up Bright Angel, I eventually did hear him not too far back and assumed that I would get passed before the top of the hill.  That never happened though, and after topping out I was able to drop the pace back down on the all-too-brief downhill and build a little bit of a gap again.  It didn't last long though as soon enough we were heading back uphill, this time on a much more gradual, but much longer, two track road.  Again, I thought for sure that whoever it was that was behind me would pass me soon enough but, again, it never happened.  After the long uphill, we hit a series of shorter ups and downs and I could hear footsteps behind me the whole way.  Finally, we hit the last hill on the course and the lady running the aid station at the top said "all downhill from here" and, I'll be damned, she was actually right (in my experience, spectators/volunteers who say that are very rarely ever right).  I tried to hammer the downhill a bit to build a gap but, being unsure of how much further we had to go, I didn't want to push too hard just yet.  My shadow was apparently doing the same as I could hear the constant sound of footsteps just a few yards behind me, never drawing closer but never falling back either.  Finally, we came around a small bend and I caught a glimpse of vehicles down below.  Knowing that the finish was definitely near, I started my final push and could tell right away that the dude behind me had done the same.  From there, it was an all out push to the finish, probably the hardest I've ever run at the end of a trail race. It paid off in the end as I crossed the line just a step ahead.  We actually finished with the same time (57:54) and, honestly, if the race would've been just a few yards further I probably wouldn't have been able to hold on.  As it turns out, our little race within the race ended up being for top honors in the 30-39 age group.  Bonus!

So, all in all not a bad weekend.  Some long distance pacing and some short distance racing.  Not sure how, or if, it will all benefit me in Leadville.  I suppose I'll find out soon enough.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Leadville Training Part 7: Getting Down to Crunch Time

In some ways, it seems like I've been training for Leadville for a long-ass time, but yet it's also flown by.  After months and months of thinking "well, it's a long ways off yet", I'm now looking at the calendar and realizing "holy shit, I'm going to be tapering here in a few weeks!".  So, inevitably, it's that time in training where you start to question everything you did and everything you wish you would've done and everything that you want to try and do in the remaining few weeks of "real" training.

The week of the Black Hills 100 was a planned cutback week since I knew full well I wasn't going to get any long runs done during the race (or any short runs either, for that matter).  But I was back at it last week, logging just over 90 miles.  Of course, the highlights of any ultra training week almost inevitably come on the weekend and last week was no different.  Like any good, self-respecting government employee, I took Friday off of work (because who in their right mind takes a holiday on a Thursday and then passes up the opportunity for a four day weekend by actually working on Friday??).  

With the entire day available and a house full of daycare kids, I escaped for a good portion of the day to run Crow Peak.  The plan was to get in at least a triple, which is about 20 miles (once I tack on a meaningless road mile just to be anal about it) and 4800 feet of gain.  I thought that I might go for a fourth summit if I felt good, but it was clear fairly early on that that wasn't in the cards.  Whether it was residual fatigue from the previous, mostly sleepless, weekend or from a track workout on Wednesday morning, my legs just didn't feel as strong as they have on recent outings on Crow.  On the second summit I felt like I was actually on the third and the third felt like a fourth so the third became the last, if that makes sense.  Still, a good long run with some good vertical.

Rather than do back to back long runs as is "normal" during ultra training, I actually ran an easy 7.5 instead. Well, easy is a relative term I guess.  It was on relatively flat roads and it was short distance, but since I didn't get out the door until late in the morning, it was also warm and humid, two of my least favorite weather conditions.  The second half of the weekend long runs actually came on Sunday when I met up with Ryan to run a section of the Centennial trail, from Dalton Lake to Elk Creek and back.  This is, arguably, the toughest section of the Black Hills 100 course, with a couple of pretty decent climbs and some shorter rolling stuff that is just harder to run than it seems like it should be.  In fact, never before have I ever run this entire section of trail going one direction, much less during an out and back section.  It took a few miles for my legs to warm up, but once they did I fell into a comfortable groove and was able to hammer out the entire 24 miles at a running pace (that pace was just barely what you would classify as "running" on the longest uphill heading back toward Dalton Lake, but it was something slightly faster than a walk).

This coming weekend I'll be doubling up on races.  Saturday is the Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon, a downhill road race on pavement.  Technically, this will be the first half marathon I've run since 2009, and only the 4th ever.  To make it more of an ultra-worthy training run, I actually plan on doing my best Dean Karnazes impression and starting from the bottom of the canyon early in the morning and getting in a good 13-17 mile warmup by running up to the start line.  Once there, I'll meet up with Shannon and pace her back down to (hopefully) a half marathon PR for her.  That'll give me somewhere between 26-30 miles for the day.  It will be, by far, the furthest we have ever run together and the first time I've paced her during a race.  This will either be a beautiful bonding experience for us or we'll be visiting a divorce lawyer on Monday.  Hard to say for sure which is more likely.  Sunday is the 34th annual Mystic Mountain Run, which makes it the oldest trail race in South Dakota.  Even though I've lived here for 7 years now, I've never run Mystic.  My first year here, I still hadn't delved into trail running and then I've run the Missoula Marathon that same weekend every year since.  Because we're traveling to Minnesota for a wedding later next week, I decided not to go to Missoula this year.  Bummer that I'll miss that marathon for the first time since its inception, but the silver lining is that I now get to run Mystic for the first time.  The race itself is about 8 miles and, yes, I'm thinking of running a couple of loops to get in 16.  Just because.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

2013 Black Hills 100

As the old saying goes, the third time is the charm.  Not that we royally screwed up the first two Black Hills 100s, but it seems as though we're hitting our stride now that the event has reached its third year.  In all honestly, when we started this thing in 2011, we didn't really have a friggin clue what we were getting into.  Looking back, knowing what we know now, it's almost hard to believe we pulled the whole thing off that first year.  Being an ultrarunner and being an ultra race director are two totally different beasts and, at heart, both Ryan and I are still ultrarunners first.  But I think we've figured out how to flip the switch to ultra race director mode when necessary.

The biggest thing we've figured out is that we can't do this ourselves.  Now, that should be painfully obvious, but during the first two years we still fell into the trap of taking too much on ourselves during the event, which led to us running around like meth addicted striped ass monkeys all weekend and totally burning ourselves out.  This year, we made it a point to seek out more help and delegate responsibilities more, allowing us to sit back and manage situations more so that reacting directly to them.  In particular, we minimized the amount of course roaming activities we did ourselves this year (delivering supplies to aid stations, picking up downed runners, etc.).  We were able to do this thanks to the dynamic duo of Royce Wuertzer (new RD of the Lean Horse Ultra in Hot Springs in August) and Nancy Smidt (a seemingly superhuman lady who apparently does not require sleep to function at full speed).  Those two put in an untold amount of miles and effort throughout the weekend and made our lives much, much easier.  We both actually got to sleep for a couple of hours on Saturday night/Sunday morning, which has never happened before during the event.  Hopefully, Ryan and I can repay Royce by returning the favor at Lean Horse.  Not sure if we can ever adequately repay Nancy, other than to petition her for sainthood.

Another major assist goes to Kevin Forrester and Todd Battles, directors of the Tatanka 100 mountain bike race, who did pretty much all of the course marking (I put up some pin flags for about 30 minutes early Saturday morning, they did the rest).  One of the major complaints about the event the first two years was the course markings along the motorized section of trail between Dalton Lake and Pilot Knob, particularly for the 100 milers who are running back through that section after dark.  It's a gnarly section of trail with a bunch of side trails and the actual route, despite permanent signage, isn't always abundantly clear.  Our number one course marking goal this year was to make that section as crystal clear as possible.  Thanks to past 100K winner and 100M runner up John Horns hooking us up with a ton of reflective tape from 3M, we were able to put out significantly more course marking this year and, so far, I haven't heard of anyone going seriously off-course (and the few people I talked to who did go off-course took responsibility for it themselves). We seem to have found a system that works well for us, and we will use it for the foreseeable future.

Another major complaint from past years, and something we have no control over, was the weather.  The severe thunderstorm in 2011 and the extreme heat in 2012 took a major toll on the finish rate and times those first two years.  Going into this year, we still didn't feel like we had good feel for just how fast or hard this course really was.  We assumed that, given decent weather, this was probably a sub-20 course (for the winner) and that our finish rate would be significantly above the 35% and 37% we had in '11 and '12.  Well, we were right.  No storms and the highs Saturday were in the mid-70s.  Jeremy Bradford returned to defend his title and broke his own course record by almost two hours, finishing in an impressive 19:05.  The real surprise was in the women's race, which was won by Kaci Lickteig.  Now, it wasn't really a shocker that she won it, but the way she did it was pretty incredible.  Running in her first ever 100 miler and coming from the flatlands of Nebraska, she absolutely obliterated the women's course record (and the old men's course record) and finished just six and a half minutes behind Jeremy in 19:12.  That's seven hours under the previous women's record.  Don't be shocked if you see her name at the top of ultra race results for years to come at some of the more well known events.  The women's course record in the 50M also fell, with Alison Fraser setting the new mark.  Oh, and our finish rate for the 100M this year was 69.5%, basically double what it was the inaugural year.  We had 14 sub-24 finishers this year, compared to a total of five from the first two years combined.  So, there goes our reputation. And I guess we'll have to order more sub-24 buckles much sooner than we thought.

All in all a great weekend.  There are always things we know we can work on, but it feels like we're getting the big stuff dialed in.  Now, to do some refining and fine tuning.  And work on getting this thing qualifier status for Western States.

As for me, back to Leadville training.  Obviously, I didn't do any long runs last weekend....the two days of the BH100 were the first two "rest" days I've had since the day after Quad Rock.  And they weren't really restful at all...I woke up Monday morning feeling like I had run an ultra of some sort myself (complete with middle of the night leg cramping, oddly enough...sympathy pains??).  But, I'm back at it now and as eager as ever to set aside the ultra race director hat for my normal ultrarunner one.  I've said it after each of the first two Black Hills 100s and I'll say it again:  it's infinitely harder to direct one of these things than to just go out and run it.  But both are rewarding in their own way.

To everyone who either volunteered at or ran in the Black Hills 100 this year, THANK YOU!!  I look forward to seeing some of you in Leadville.  

Monday, June 17, 2013

Leadville Training Part 6: The Bighorn 30K

Hard to believe a year has already passed since I ran the Bighorn 100.  But, as they say, time flies when you're having fun and here we are in mid-June again.  Bighorn is one of my favorite events; beautiful trails and a great post-race BBQ make for an overall awesome experience and the fact that it's a mere three hour drive away doesn't hurt either.  I've been running there since 2009.  I was just getting started in ultrarunning back then and the Bighorn 50K was just my second ultra.  I returned the next year for the 50M and subsequently was handed my first ever DNF.  2011 brought redemption in the 50M and then I finished my 2nd 100 miler there last year.  That left just one race distance at Bighorn that I had never covered: the 30K.  While technically not an ultra, it is a trail run and seemed like a good chance to stretch the legs and really race a race for a change, as opposed to just slogging through a longer distance with an eye more on finishing than finishing fast.  My mission at Bighorn this year was definitely to finish fast.

As I've mentioned on here before, one aspect of my Leadville training this year is the goal to drop some extra weight before the big race in August.  I'm still not sure how much I want to lose, I just know I need to lose some.  When I weighed myself back in March before I started my training, I tipped the scales at 209.  Definitely not ideal weight for an ultrarunner, although I had been making do for a few years at or near that weight.  By the time Quad Rock rolled around in early May, I was down to about 190 and was hoping to see some obvious benefit of that weight loss at QR.  That didn't come to fruition as the previously documented digestive issues drove me off the course after just one 25 mile loop. On the day before Bighorn, I weighed in at 183.  There's gotta be a benefit to carrying around 26 fewer pounds, right?  I was really hoping to find out.

Obviously, since I'm training for Leadville, I didn't necessarily train specifically for this was just kind of jammed into the schedule and the plan was to basically train through it.  Good evidence of that was my fairly heavy weekend the week before Bighorn, which left my legs feeling heavy and sluggish all the way through Wednesday of the following week.  I "tapered" for Bighorn with very slow, very easy, very flat runs of 6 and 4.5 miles on Thursday and Friday.  By the end of the week my legs felt better, but I still wasn't sure just how much kick I would have on Saturday morning and was wondering if maybe the Crow Peak Quad was a bit foolhardy just six days before Bighorn.  Only one way to find out...

The race starts at the Dry Fork aid station along the Bighorn 100 course.  Although labeled a 30K, which would be 18 miles, it's actually closer to 17 or 17.5 depending on who you ask.  And although the route includes the steepest incline (The Haul) along the Bighorn 100 course, it is overall a VERY downhill course.  From about 7600 feet at Dry Fork, the route ascends and then descends a bit to the first aid station (Upper Sheep Cr) at 7300 ft.  Right after that is The Haul, which is short but steep and takes you to the high point of the course at around 8000 ft.  And then the "fun" begins in the form of an absolutely quad killing bombing run of a downhill to the Lower Sheep Cr. aid station at 5000 ft....3000 ft of descent in a few miles.  After that, the course continues losing elevation, but along much more gradual, somewhat rolling, trails and gravel roads to the finish in Dayton.  If you've still got the legs left, you can really hammer the last 5 miles on the road and make up some time.  Of course, if your legs are shot, it's the longest damn 5 miles of your life.

Since the 50K, 50M and 100M all cover the 30K course, I've actually run this course three times before.  But, I had never run it on fresh legs, so I was curious to see what I could do without several hours on my legs already. Based on past results, including the results of several local Black Hills runners who I'm familiar with, I was expecting that a top 10 finish was very doable and that, depending on how things shook out, I might even have a shot at a top 5 and an age group award.  I pegged 2:20-2:25, which worked out to 8:00-8:15 pace, as a good goal for a finishing time.

Since it's a point to point route, they bus you to the start and I rode in the back (like the cool kids in high school) with Ryan, who was going for a sub-2 and a new CR, and a few other Black Hills runners.  After a fairly long ride, we finally arrived at Dry Fork just in time to see the 50Kers start at 8:00.  Because of the popularity of the 30K, they split the race into two waves this year, with the "competitive" wave starting at 9:00 and the "family and friends" wave at 10:00.  This meant we had an hour to hang out and talk and basically just mill around.  It actually passed fairly quickly and, thankfully, it was a little warmer than it usually is at Dry Fork, so we weren't numb and shivering by the time the race started.  I knocked out about a mile warmup run up the road just before the start and the legs felt okay, not great, but the heaviness from early in the week seemed mostly gone.  After the national anthem, we were lined up and ready to go.

Immediately after the start, Ryan and last year's winner took off in the front of the pack.  I settled into the top 10 or 15 and tried to find a groove.  The first mile or so is a gradual uphill, first on a dirt road and then onto some singletrack.  As we neared the top of this uphill I started to find the groove a bit and get my breathing/striding in sync and was in about 7th or 8th when we topped out and started the mostly gradual downhill to the first aid station.  Along this trail section I started feeling pretty good and was cranking out the miles fairly consistently.  And then the first fall happened.  The trail through this section is fairly narrow and infringed upon by large sagebrush.  As I was cruising along, my foot and/or shoelace caught on a sagebrush branch and before I knew it, I was down.  I managed to catch myself a bit, but not all the way.  I bounced up and started running again immediately, but lost a position in the process.  I realized quickly that my left shoelace had been pulled loose in the fall, so just before a short but steep uphill I pulled aside and re-tied it, losing another few positions.  But, pretty much all of those guys walked that uphill and I threw it into low gear and ran it, so picked the positions back up in short order.  Immediately after the hill was the first aid station at Upper Sheep Cr., which I ran through (I didn't use any aid stations all day, as I was carrying a single handheld and had two gels with me).

Right after Upper Sheep Cr. is The Haul, which seemingly took me about 2 hours to climb last year in the 100 (it wasn't that bad, but it was a slow process of walk ten steps, rest, repeat).  This year, I started off back in low gear, with aspirations of maybe running the whole thing.  That quickly revealed itself to be a foolhardy strategy, so I started power hiking like everyone else and continued until the grade leveled out a bit near the top, where I started running again.  I lost another position on The Haul, but also drew closer to a guy who was in front of me.  After the shoe-tying and then subsequently passing one or two guys through the aid station, I had kind of lost track of where I was in the field, but thought it was around 7th or 8th.  At the top, I glanced at my Garmin and my average pace up to that point was exactly 8:15, at the low end of my goal for the day, but virtually all of the uphill was now behind me.

And now the fun begins.  The downhill after The Haul is just brutal.  It's not smooth, it's not easy and it's not really all that much fun.  It's a narrow, sometimes rocky, sometimes rutted out, mostly steep, singletrack that will absolutely obliterate your quads and seems to go on forever.  The plan was to run it hard, and I did.  Probably harder than I've allowed myself to run downhill in quite some time.  That was partly because I was in lockstep with a guy right in front of me (the guy who had passed me on The Haul) and another guy right on my heels.  About halfway down, the guy in front of my took a pretty good spill and after asking if he was okay (he was), me and the guy behind me took off ahead of him.  Up ahead was another runner and we started gaining on him as we continued dive bombing down the hill.  After awhile, it was apparent that the guy behind me was better at this downhill stuff than I am and he bounced around me and was quickly around the next guy and gone.  And then it happened again.  As I was pounding down the narrow trail, my right foot got caught in the loop of my shoelace on my left foot and I hit the turf.  Hard.  I took most of the impact on my left knee, which was already bleeding from my first fall, and my right hand, which was holding my hand held bottle.  I hit hard enough that the plastic strap that secure the bottle to the carrier snapped, rendering the carrier basically useless.  I jumped back up again, picked up the bottle and considered just leaving the useless, broken carrier there until I remembered my car keys were in the pocket.  Might need those later. So then I was running down the trail with the bottle loose in one hand the and the carrier in the other.  I knew that my left knee/shin were sore and bloody, but it didn't appear as though anything was truly injured.  And no one passed me, so no big deal, right?

Until it happened yet again.  Not much later I again bit it, the foot in the shoe lace again the culprit.  Sonofabitch! (I actually yelled out a different word in the moment).  Again, I took most of the impact on my left leg, which didn't really help things.  Frustration setting in, I took a few moments to re-tie my shoes again in an attempt to alleviate the problem (which has never been a problem with these shoes before, although I'd never run this fast downhill on a narrow trail in these shoes either).  While doing this, one guy passed me and the other guy I had been gaining on pulled further ahead.  I quickly regained my lost position though as he slowed going through the Lower Sheep Cr. aid station, which was just up ahead.  At that point, the worst of the downhill was, thankfully, over and the trail leveled out considerably and even included a few short stretches of rolling uphill.  By this point, my left shin and knee were pretty sore and my legs were feeling pretty beat up from the downhill.  It felt like I was suddenly running at a snail's pace without gravity helping me anymore, but my Garmin told me I was still doing just fine and had cut my average pace down to 8:00, at the high end of my goal range.  Would I actually be able to come in under 2:20?  If I could hold it together for 6 more miles...

I was fairly astounded that I had already managed to bite it three times in one race, which is far and away a new record for me.  But I wasn't done yet.  Not long after Lower Sheep Cr. I took one last swan dive.  This one had to resemble a baseball player sliding headfirst into home place, as I landed on my chest with my hands/arms stretched out in front of me and then managed to bounce my chin off the trail to finish it off.  I reached up to my chin to feel for blood, but found none, although I now had a bit of a headache to add to the sore knee and shin.  I finally decided at this point that I needed to remedy the situation before I did some serious damage to myself and took a few moments to tuck my shoelace loops into my shoes, which, of course, would've been a brilliant move after the first fall. No positions lost, so I was thinking I was in 6th or 7th at that point and I knew I had at least one guy not too terribly far ahead of me, although I wasn't sure how far as the curving, rolling trail didn't offer much in the way of sight distance.  Well, turns out it wasn't actually that far at all as not much later I came around a curve in the trail and saw him hiking a short uphill right in front of me.  I ran up and over and passed him quickly.  Not long after that, I ran past some mountain bikers and I thought I heard one of them say I was in 4th, but that didn't seem right based on who I knew to be ahead of me, so I guesstimated that 5th or 6th was more likely.

By this time, the trail running was done and the final 5 mile stretch of dirt road to the finish had begun. This stretch of road took ffffffooooorrrrreeeevvvvveeeeeerrrrrr last year in the 100M as I ended up walking 90% of it.  Although my legs were tired by this point and my left leg was sore from the extra abuse it had taken, I was still cranking out what I thought was a pretty decent pace for that point in the race, around 7:30 miles.  The road is mostly flat with a few gradual ups and downs along the way and I could not see anyone ahead of me within range, so I wasn't really expecting to gain any positions in the final miles.  As far as I knew, no one was hot on my heels either, so I was thinking that I was probably locked in position-wise, it was just a question of what my time would be.  So, of course, I begin thinking not only about my overall position, but also about where I sat in my age group.  I knew Ryan was older, but I suspected that at least two, possibly three, of the other guys I knew for sure to be ahead of me might be in their 30s.  So I was right on the brink, possibly outside looking in already.  And then I heard footsteps.  When this happens toward the end of, say, a marathon, you immediately begin to hope it's just a relay runner.  Well, no such luck here.  I was running the shortest/fastest distance....seemed highly unlikely that a 100 miler was suddenly running sub-7 miles and about to overtake me.  Indeed, it turned out to be the guy who had fallen right in front of me on the downhill.  He had recovered nicely and was cruising the road at a good clip, much better than I could maintain at that point.  He passed me and was gone in short order, despite the fact that I had dropped my pace into the 7:20s.  Not much longer after that, it happened again; footsteps right behind me, a quick "good job" and gone.  This was a guy I hadn't seen all day but he had apparently been lingering back in the pack and waiting for the final push.  Again, although I felt like I was running well for that point in the race, I just didn't have the speed to keep up at that point.

By then we were past the last aid station, Homestretch, with only two miles to the finish.  I risked a few glances behind me when the road offered a long view and didn't see anyone else sneaking up, so now it really did seem as though I was locked into my current position, whatever it was.  It also seemed certain I was definitely outside the age group hardware now, but nothing I could do about that anymore.  So I just kept chugging along and in no time was coming into Dayton with the park and finish line just ahead (amazing how much faster that road stretch goes by when you actually run it).  For the first time all day I switched the screen on my Garmin to display my total elapsed time and saw it just clicking over to 2:10.  Sonofabitch! Of course, that's much faster than I expected to run, but I immediately started thinking about where I could've shaved time (by, say, not falling four times) and come in under 2:10.  But, again, nothing to do about it at this point so I continued pushing to the finish. As I came into the park I immediately saw/heard Ryan and his four daughters cheering for me and pushed across the line in 2:11:49.  Final check of the results put me at 7th overall and 5th in my age group.  Being in your 30s sucks sometimes!

Okay, so I won't lie and say I'm not disappointed that I didn't get to bring home one of those big ass Bighorn river rock age group awards, but you can't really complain too much about coming in 9 minutes under your stretch goal time.  Other than getting up close and personal with the trail more times than I would've liked, the race really couldn't have gone much better for me.  I feel like, for the first time, I've really experienced what it's like to race with less weight.  I'm fairly convinced that there is no way I could've run this race this fast 26 pounds ago.  I'm happy with how things went and even more excited now about the rest of my Leadville training.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention Ryan's race here briefly.  As mentioned before, he was gunning for the course record, which was 1:59.  Ryan is in phenomenal shape this year and I suspected he'd give it a run for its money.  Well, he did that and more, finishing in 1:57.  But, turns out last year's winner was in phenomenal shape too as he ran a 1:56. Sonofabitch!  It was a fast day at the Bighorn 30K!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Leadville Training Part 5: A different kind of quad rock

Okay, it's been awhile (which is a great Staind song, by the way), so time to get caught up here.

After my abbreviated training run at Quad Rock, I've been pretty much head down, grinding out as many miles as I can in an attempt to wash the bad taste out of my mouth.  And, for the most part, it's been working.  As I noted in my last post, the training has gone very well since QR and I'm definitely feeling stronger.  It's been too long to go into the intimate details, so I'll just touch on some highlights:

5/23 - My birthday.  The big 3-5.  Ran 10 miles on the Tinton trail.  Nothing too exciting about it, really, but I am in a new age group now, depending on how they split em.  Oh, and one of my birthday presents was a brand spankin new Garmin Forerunner 910.

5/26 - Ran from the Dalton Lake trailhead (miles 29/71 of the Black Hills 100 course) back to the BH100 start/finish in Sturgis with Johnathan, who will be double-dipping as the BH100 photographer and a 100K runner this year.  29 miles and I was still feeling pretty damn good when we got done.

6/2 - My daughter's birthday.  Much more exciting than my own.  Besides a rockin One Direction-themed party, I also ran a marathon (Deadwood-Mickelson), where I paced a friend from Texas to a 4:11 finish. I don't run many marathons anymore and found myself extremely disappointed in the lack of food choices at the aid stations.  Bananas and oranges?  That's the crap I eat during the week when I'm watching my calories.  I want bacon and cookies, damn it!  There was one aid station that had homemade banana bread, which was pretty awesome.

6/7-6/9 - This ended up being an interesting three day stretch of training.  At some point last week, I got a wild hair up my ass to do a night run, so after my son's baseball game on Friday evening I headed to Sturgis and met up with Ryan for some night running on the Centennial.  We started at about 9:30 and covered 20 miles between the Ft. Meade trailhead and some random point between the Bulldog and Elk Creek aid station locations on the BH100 course. Got done a bit before 2:00 AM, drove home, showered and crashed for about 4 hours of somewhat fitful sleep before getting up to run the Hayfever 4 mile race in Belle Fourche.  I managed to win that race against a fairly small field, went home, showered again and did some yard/housework for most of the rest of the day.  On Sunday, I got up early to tackle Crow Peak, which has become my go-to training location for Leadville.  In my last post, I wrote about the Crow Peak Triple I ran the week after Quad Rock.  Being an ultrarunner, I'm always looking to up the ante, so the goal for Sunday was my first ever Crow Peak Quad.  The first two laps went well and I again managed to run the entire ascent both times (noting that running the entire ascent just one time was an enormous accomplishment in the very recent past).  The third ascent was a bit slower, but I ran all but the 2 or 3 steepest pitches near the top.  By then, it was becoming a bit of a mental battle as I cruised down the hill the third time, trying to convince myself that I should in fact run one more lap.  After eating a snack and refilling my water, I forced myself away from the car for a fourth ascent and came very close to turning back around a few times within the first half mile.  Eventually, I managed to remind myself that Leadville will include a fair amount of hiking and that it is, in fact, okay to do some hiking in training.  So I did a mix of running and hiking and ground out the fourth ascent in what was actually an okay time (it always seems so much slower in the midst of the fatigue).  With that out of the way, the fourth descent was actually my fastest and I felt pretty good, both mentally and physically, when I reached the trailhead again after 25.2 miles and 6200 feet of total ascent.  A good 2+ day training block, both mentally and physically.

This coming weekend is the Bighorn 30K in Dayton, WY.  Since I ran the 100M at Bighorn last year, the 30K seems like kind of a cop out, but it's the only distance (out of 30K, 50K, 50M and 100M) that Bighorn offers that I haven't run.  And, honestly, I'm really looking forward to hammering out a fast, hard trail run.  So much of ultra running is just grinding out slow miles for hours on end.  This time I'm actually going to race the thing and see what happens.  I'm hoping to bring one of those big damn rocks (the traditional Bighorn age group award) back to Belle with me!