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.