Running should feel natural

Running should feel natural

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Getting in the zone at Terrapin

I loved Terrapin from when I ran it last year for the first time.  The views, the course, the support, and the start/finish area at the Sedalia Center are all top notch.  Last year I was still getting my feat wet with big elevation change ultras, but this year I decided to really attack this thing and see what kind of improvements I could make.

A panorama of the start/finish area.  The finish is to the left.  The course is in the distance,
with the actual Terrapin Mountain over on the right.  You can see a runner coming!

This year wasn't about being conservative.  This year was about data.  Improving my total time, running a consistent effort from the get-go, minimizing time spent in aid stations, and trying to utilize my heart rate monitor.

Race: Terrapin Mountain 50k
Location: Sedalia, Virginia
Date: March 22, 2014
Gain/Loss: 6,970 ft
Time: 5:35:21

Heart Rate Monitoring

I have been experimenting more with a heart rate monitor this season.  Its a good data point to go off of since your heart rate always tells the story of how hard you are working.  Whether you are going up hill on single track, running on flat surfaces, or bounding down a gravel road your heart rate will tell you your effort level.

The "zones" tell your story and they are all based on your maximum heart rate.  These are different person to person, but its usually between 185 and 205 for people depending on various factors; I estimate mine at 195.  The easy pace, or recovery zone, means you are exercising but should not be exerting yourself.  This is often actually the best zone for losing weight and is fine for easy pace training runs.  The aerobic zone is what I will typically race long races in, marathons and longer.  The anaerobic zone really means you are at risk of burning out if you keep it up too long.  This is better for shorter races, interval workouts, or special sections where you give it an extra kick.  The max "red line" zone should rarely be reached, maybe toward the end of a 5k or in an interval workout (like "spinning" cycling classes).  Yet another advantage of heart rate training is that the theory applies to all forms of aerobic exercise, from running, to cycling, to cross-country skiing - you name it.

Get in the zone! No, not Auto-Zone...

My basic idea with Terrapin was to stay "in the zone", in my aerobic zone.  This would ensure an honest, consistent effort and (hopefully) not lead to burning out in the latter stages.  I was trying to target between 150 and 160 BPM.  If I started heading up a hill and was approaching 170 I would back it off and speed hike until things settled back down.  The converse is that when I was heading down some of the many descents - even if the pace felt fine - if my HR was dipping below 150 this meant I really wasn't working to my potential and would speed things up.  This even resulting in some sub 6:30 miles bounding down some of the gravel road sections.  There was the inevitable risk of burning out my quads, but I was okay with that.

Aid Stations

I've gotten advice before to try to carry most of your nutrition and to fill up your hydration the least times possible, ideally only once.  The other school of thought being to pack light, maybe just a hand bottle, and then make frequent but very quick stops at aid stations.  Since I tend to eat and drink a lot during races I decided to test out my new Salomon race vest, which I have been loving so far in training runs.

I filled it with some watered down coconut water to start, which has a ton of potassium and doesn't leave me with that stomach churning feeling that drinking an artificially formulated drink does first thing in the morning.  I ended up only having to refuel once, thanks in part to the cool, dry weather that day.  I refueled with watered down Gu Brew.

On a separate subject, I am back to just drinking whatever drink races hand out, be it Gu Brew or Gatorade.  After trying out of the alternatives like Nuun and Tailwind, I have to say that I really see zero difference in energy or performance from them.  They seem to have an x-factor of making you feel like some independent thinking expert, but I sure as heck can't tell the difference.

I packed (and ate) a few Lara-Bars, some Carb-boom gels, and a couple of salt tablets.  I did also grab the occasional banana and orange slice at various aid stations.

The Race


As soon as we set off I started out at an honest clip, not quite up front but trailing a little behind the lead pack.  Since there are half-marathon runners out there at the same time, you could be running next to someone with a much shorter day ahead but it actually looked like mostly 50k runners up front.  The beginning section on the road was runable but within a few miles or so became steep enough to necessitate walking in some parts.  I just had to go by feel for the first section.  My heart rate kind of goes bonkers at the start of a run, either reading high or low, before settling to a steady rate.

Our largest creek crossing came in this first section.  While I don't have a problem just trudging through, later on that hill my socks were getting bunched up and were not drying out and draining like they usually do.  This bugged me enough to pull over, take off my shoes and wring out my socks.  It was worth it and I immediately felt like I could run faster with lighter, less squishy feet, but it still hurt losing those 2 minutes.

I blew through the first pass of camping gap aid station and we started back downhill the other side.  Keeping an honest aerobic effort now meant running faster than I normally would downhill but the time gains were worth it.  I clocked a few miles under 6:30 pace here, and my quads could feel the pounding.  Running through 2 more aid stations and on some flat parts we started back up again.  One more time through camping gap, then turned off to the right into the next lolipop.  I saw the leader coming into the aid station from the other direction.  This guy was putting on an incredible performance and was over 10 minutes in front of the next contender.  This section had a lot of gradual ups and downs and was pretty runnable as well, other than the climb up to the first bib punch of the day.

Heading back to camping gap for yet a third time I knew it was time to refuel.  The race was more than half over at this point; we were something like 20 miles in.  This was a valuable stop, but again I hate losing a few minutes unless absolutely necessary.  Next was the final ascent to the top of Terrapin Mountain.  This part certainly required power hiking and its hard to imagine anyone picking up their feet here.  After going out to the rocky outcropping to punch our bibs again, I headed back down eventually toward "Fat Man's Misery", also known to me as "Tall Man's Misery".  This is a series of several boulders wedged together that you must squeeze through.  Fun!

We then experience an extreme loss in elevation down the backside of the mountain.  This is the toughest section of the course to me.  I have gotten better at downhill running on technical trails, but its just not worth the risk of falling for me to really go all out.  About 2/3 the way down is a huge rock garden that runners must tip-toe across.  Once we finally reach the bottom we are at the final aid station, where I got a quick drink and ate some more fruit.  Back up a small climb to the last major section of the course.

We traverse the front side of the mountain, and while there are plenty of minor ups and downs here it can mostly be run.  Having GPS enabled mileage tracking feels really advantageous in sections like this that can just seem to keep dragging on forever.  At least I knew how far I had gone and approximately how much was left.  In hindsight I wished I had ran more of this section and faster.  My energy was dwindling but I don't think I was on the verge of bonking.  My HR was now dipping below 150 consistently meaning a lackluster effort, but I was just too tired mentally to push it.  Once I started recognizing the end of the course was a big relief since it meant only downhill running from here on out.  We got back out on the gravel road and I was able to pick it up.  The last mile is marked with a "1 mile to go" sign and it soon turns into pavement.


I kicked my pace up a notch really hoping to come in under 5:40.  I was able to do so handily, just over 5:35, a 25 minute improvement over last year!  This probably meant 10 less minutes in aid stations and almost a minute per mile faster elsewhere.  Both huge wins in my book.  By now it was warm and sunny out, which felt great after the finish.  I gladly hung out to wait for the rest of my friends before heading on back to Northern VA.



Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sometimes you have to start over to come full circle

This year I will be running the 40th annual Marine Corps Marathon in Arlington, Virginia.  When I started running shortly after college I was soon eyeing the marathon distance, and lucky for me the perfect race for first timers was right down the road.  I ran Marine Corps Marathon as my first marathon and still holds a special place in my heart.

This year I will return to Arlington, to the course, to the monuments, to the pace groups, to all the Marines working the aid stations, and more importantly I will return to where it all started.

Since falling head over heals with Ultras some of my road speed has dwindled; I would like to think I can regain some of that this summer as I train.  I don't know what time I will shoot for.  I would like to think sub 3:10 is a safe bet, maybe run with the 3:05 group, or improve on my marathon PR and get lower into the 2:50s.  Its too soon to tell - you should always wait until you are about 2/3 through your training to quantify a time goal.  All I know is that I've regained my excitement over the marathon distance.

Most importantly at this point in time, is that after entering the Marine Corps Marathon lottery I got confirmation - I'm in!


Some people get a little too carried away with their first marathon.  I decided to stay patient and really build up to it when I really started running.  I had been running regularly for the past few months in 2008 but decided I should wait until 2009 to take the full plunge.  After getting my half-marathon time down below 2 hours I drafted a plan based on the Hal Higdon Marathon training programs.  I think I peaked at like 40 miles per week, typically did 1 speed workout on a track each week, more easy miles, a longer run on the weekend, some mixed in weights and cross training, and did my 3 critical long runs of 18, 20, and 22 miles.

The marathon distance was still no-mans-land for me, but looking back I really had a great training season.  I remember the excitement of my first half-marathon, my first "fast" 10 miler (at under 80 minutes), breaking 24 minutes in a 5k (thats sub-8 minute miles!), and the incredible feeling of my first long run.  It was 14 miles, a pedestrian distance now, but at the time I felt superhuman.  I lost close to 20 pounds in my first 2 years of distance running.  It was a lot of fun, and it awakened something in my that I didn't realize was lying dormant all these years.   I didn't think my finish was too special but in hindsight its pretty solid for a first marathon.


Since then I have run 8 more marathons, including a PR of 2:59:29 and 2 Boston Marathons, as well as 9 50ks, 2 50 milers, 1 100 k, and 1 100 miler, as well as thousands of training miles in between.   I feel like I have come a long way from not even being able to run 5 miles.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Whole30 Challenge: no grains, no sugar, and no booze for 30 days


"Let us change your life"

Thats a pretty bold claim, but I like a good challenge, and after trying vegetarian and vegan diets out in the past I was up for trying something new.

The program and many of its followers who completed it have some impressive testimonials.  The program makes claims of improved body composition, higher energy levels, better sleep, improved athletic performance, and eliminating generally unhealthy food cravings.  As a born skeptic, I take the sparkling testimonials with a grain of salt.  People who want to get you on board with their ideology typically only provide positive testimony from its followers.  Apparently there is a science to back it up which I didn't read too far into, but people can use science to "prove" almost anything, and it seems like every fad diet has a study that qualifies it as the best.

The biggest endorsements however came from some fellow Ultra-runners I know who generally follow a no-grain no-sugar diet, especially one gal I know how has a knack at the 100 mile distance. So why not? I took the plunge and committed.  I like to think I'm stubborn (in a good way), and that once I commit to something I do not ever back down unless I have justifiable evidence its wiser not to continue.

I was also prepping myself for a month of constant food preparation, not eating out, not socializing, often having to sound like that annoying "food restriction" person, and dealing with over the top pretentious advice and behaviors.  This program looks to reshape your "long-standing, unhealthy patterns related to food, eating and your body image" and rethink the "Standard American Diet - or SAD for short".  I like how the acronym has to sound negative of course.  What about the RAD (Regular American Diet)?  Prepare to be judged!!

These are whats in that powdered coffee creamer in the break room.  You
will not be eating this.  Then again, no human should ever consume this!

Anecdotes aside, this program sounds legitimate and the theories just make sense.  Basically, you are eating actual food, not processed crap that sits on the shelf and never goes bad.  Stuff you could actually go out and hunt or gather.  Ingredients you can actually pronounce!

What is Whole 30?

Taken straight from the website:

"Established by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig (of Whole9) in April 2009, the Whole30® is our original nutritional program designed to change your life in 30 days. Think of it as a short-term nutritional reset, designed to help you put an end to unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract, and balance your immune system.

Certain food groups (like sugar, grains, dairy and legumes) could be having a negative impact on your health and fitness without you even realizing it. Are your energy levels inconsistent or non-existent? Do you have aches and pains that can’t be explained by over-use or injury? Are you having a hard time losing weight no matter how hard you try? Do you have some sort of condition (like skin issues, digestive ailments, seasonal allergies or fertility issues) that medication hasn’t helped? These symptoms may be directly related to the foods you eat—even the “healthy” stuff.

So how do you know if (and how) these foods are affecting you? Strip them from your diet completely. Cut out all the psychologically unhealthy, hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups for a full 30 days. Let your body heal and recover from whatever effects those foods may be causing. Push the “reset” button with your metabolism, systemic inflammation, and the downstream effects of the food choices you’ve been making. Learn once and for all how the foods you've been eating are actually affecting your day to day life, and your long term health."

I'm about to rethink everything I knew about giving your body energy.  As a big runner, I have been surrounded by pseudo-science on "carbo-loading" for endurance events.  I do not plan on taking any time off and instead getting a lot of miles in for my spring races, while at the same time eating no pasta, rice, or breads.

I also will not be consuming any alcohol for 30 days.  This is a challenge I have been meaning to undertake for awhile now.  While I by no means feel dependent on alcohol (beer is my beverage of choice), sometimes its good to give yourself a break and remember that there is life (and nightlife) outside of bars.  This should save considerable money too.


Its should be understood that Whole30 really isn't a diet, its a lifestyle change in the way you eat.  Seriously! Its not about your weight, calories, or portion sizes.  They even tell you not to weigh yourself or play the numbers game.  You are getting rid of bad habits and rethinking how you buy, cook, and consume.  You just: Eat. Good. Food.

What you can eat

The program's creators like to focus more on what you can eat than what you can't.  This is valid, and the food you eat is actually really good.  There are tons of recipes and resources out there, stuff like breakfast skillets, bacon & eggs, skillets, stews, steak, burgers, etc. (just be sure all the ingredients are compliant). Really tasty food, that is surprisingly easy to make and comes out looking like a work of art.  Lots of veggies, seafood, fruit, and sources for good fats.  Nuts are a great go-to snack (typically almonds, cashews, and pecans), as are olives.  Avocados are another versatile food that can top just about anything, and are a great source of the "good fat".

They even provide a handy shopping list on their website to get you started.

What you can't eat

While they do like to stress what you can eat rather than what you can't - Lets be realistic, there are a ton of can'ts involved.  Way more than the obvious stuff.  They sum it up well on their website.  It may sound stringent, but its not to be mean, its the result of a science.

  • Do not consume added sugar of any kind, real or artificial. No maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, coconut sugar, Splenda, Equal, Nutrasweet, xylitol, stevia, etc. Read your labels, because companies sneak sugar into products in ways you might not recognize.
  • Do not consume alcohol in any form, not even for cooking. (And it should go without saying, but no tobacco products of any sort, either.)
  • Do not eat grains. This includes (but is not limited to) wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, millet, bulgur, sorghum, amaranth, buckwheat, sprouted grains and all of those gluten-free pseudo-grains like quinoa.
  • Do not eat legumes. This includes beans of all kinds (black, red, pinto, navy, white, kidney, lima, fava, etc.), peas, chickpeas, lentils, and peanuts. No peanut butter, either. This also includes all forms of soy – soy sauce, miso, tofu, tempeh, edamame, and all the ways we sneak soy into foods (like lecithin).
  • Do not eat dairy. This includes cow, goat or sheep’s milk products such as cream, cheese (hard or soft), kefir, yogurt (even Greek), and sour cream.
  • Do not consume carrageenan, MSG or sulfites. If these ingredients appear in any form on the label of your processed food or beverage, it’s out for the Whole30.
Yes its not going to be "easy".  But then what is really worth doing thats easy?  They make a good point that if you think this is hard you should put your life into perspective.  There are really hard things out there, like battling a terminal disease, going to war, living below the poverty line, etc. - this is more of a minor inconvenience.  Who knows, maybe by the end of the month I'll like it!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Running and Adventure Tales to Inspire and Train you

The following are some great books and movies related to running.  Some are for training purposes, while others should just inspire you.  Though the training books are very literal, the inspiring stories (as I call them) tend to be better motivators.  Motivators to push yourself further, try something new, and follow in the footsteps of those who went before.  There are more out there if you look (The movie "Spirit of the Marathon" or the book "Relentless Forward Progress" come to mind) but I probably didn't like them as much.  I have yet to read or see all of these, but these are my favorites or at least are on my short list to read next.  I will continue to update these.


Inspiring Books:


Ultramarathon Man - Some runners have mixed opinion about Dean, but his book about running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days is an inspiring tale that relates well to the every-man.
Born To Run - personal opinions aside, this book sparked a new era in running and shook up a stale shoe industry.  Though enthusiast runners can punch holes in its theories, its as entertaining as it is inspiring and sheds light on ultra running to the masses.
Eat and Run - Scott Yurek, America's greatest ultrarunner and arguably the worlds best, describes his life growing up in the fast-food ridden midwest and his shift to a vegan diet while racing (and winning) ultrarunning's toughest events.
Marathon Man - The bio of Bill Rodgers and his journey from unknown grad student to winning the 1975 Boston Marathon.  "Boston Billy" helped launch the modern day running boom.

No Shortcuts to the Top - Not a running book, but the lifelong quest of Ed Viesturs to become the first American to climb the world's highest 14 peaks - all without bottled oxygen.
Once a Runner - A fictional novel about a runner's lifelong dream to run a 4 minute mile.  An inside account of the chaotic lives of elite distance runners.
The Perfect Mile - Throughout time a sub 4 minute mile was thought impossible to obtain with the human body, but 2 runners in the early 1950s set out on both a physical and spiritual quest to prove this wrong.
Running with the Buffaloes - An NCAA season running along with the University of Colorado cross country team as they devote themselves to excellence.
Unbroken - A story of impossible resilience and determination about a teenager who channeled his defiance into running and landed a spot in the Berlin Olympics.  He was soon sucked into World War II and had to endure a harrowing experience, first adrift in the Pacific Ocean and then in a Japanese prison camp.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the PCT - Cheryl Strayed's retelling of her adventure on the Pacific Crest trail as an inexperienced hiker grieving over the loss of her mother while recovering from substance abuse.


Training Guides:


A Step Beyond: A Definitive Guide to Ultrarunning - As the name implies, this book is an encyclopedia of knowledge about ultra running.  Over 500 pages of on training, nutrition, physiology, race summaries, even humor on the sport.
Advanced Marathoning - A science based approach to get you in great shape for the marathon, with advice on how to compliment your training with strength, flexibility and form.
Daniel's Running Formula - Running coach Jack Daniels, PhD, has a plan to get you into the best shape of your life with his VDOT based training approaches (VDOT is short for VO2max, the maximum rate of oxygen consumption your body can sustain).  With plans from the 5k up to the marathon, the workouts are brutal but will elevate your fitness to a new level.
Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide - Hal Higdon's often anecdotal guide to marathons, great for your first or 50th race (really!).  While beginner friendly, I still pick it up and read random parts from time to time.


Movies:


Apocalypto - A midst a declining Mayan Kingdom, a young man is sent on a death march to await his death, but instead flees his fate.  A deadly footrace ensues through the jungles to try and reach his family and his freedom.
Chariots of Fire - The classic running film about 2 British track stars and their desire to compete in the 1924 Olympic games.  Contains some familiar music as well.
Forest Gump - Everyone's favorite movie about the life of a challenged man who also happens to love running.  We all loved his fictitious run across America, not to mention some classic quotes like when asked why he was running across the country his response of "I just felt like running", or at the end of his journey where he bluntly states "I'm pretty tired...I think I'll go home now", and don't forget: "Run Forest Run"!
Indulgence: 1000 miles under the Colorado sky - a summer of running in the Rockies with Anton Krupicka.
Prefontaine - the 1997 movie about the Oregon running phenom and Olympic hopeful Prefontaine who died tragically before his peak.
Run Fatboy Run - 5 years after leaving his pregnant fiance, out-of-shape Dennis commits to running  a marathon to show his ex that he isn't a quitter.  Fatboy puts a comedic spin on training for your first marathon and a great visual representation of how to break through "the wall".
Run Lola Run - A fast-paced German thriller about a woman who must frantically run across town to find money to bail her boyfriend out of a crime ring.  Its told in three distinct "running" episodes.
The Runner - profiling ultra-running pioneer David Horton's speed record of the 2,700 mile Pacific Crest Trail.
Running on the Sun: The Badwater 135 - a documentary about the infamous Badwater 135 mile run and some of the participants, which takes place in one of the hottest places on Earth.
Ultramarathon Man - the very watchable film adaptation of Dean Karnaze's aforementioned book.
Unbreakable: The 2010 Western States 100 - 4 top ultra-runners all eye a win at Western States, one of the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile races in the world.  Only one man will stay "Unbreakable"!
Without Limits - another great movie from 1998 about the life of Steve Prefontaine, chronicling his life and Olympic experiences.




Friday, January 2, 2015

Reflecting on the Beast, staying healthy, and looking forward to 2015

The Beast


The final standings for the Beast have been released.  It took me 77 hours 47 minutes and 35 seconds to finish it.  It was over 315 miles of racing, and countless more time and miles in training. To recap the 6 races that make up The Beast:


Start of the Mountain Masochist 50 miler (courtesy of Mykkah Photog.)

The biggest irony here is that I didn't even mean to sign up for the Beast initially. I had thought about it, debated signing up for the shorter Lynchburg Ultra Series, or just making the Grindstone 100 miler my only goal for 2014.  Thanks to a few drinks and a persistent runner friend I went ahead and took the plunge last winter by signing up.  I was committed.

The Grindstone 100 Starting Line (courtesy of Mykkah Photog.)

The Beast has been a journey into being a real mountain ultra runner.  I had only done a few Ultra-distance races before 2014, and they were mostly flatter ones, the longest being a 50 miler.  My road marathons help lay the groundwork with fitness and speed, but they aren't comparable to mountainous ultras.  The Beast is a grinder, and when you come out of it you feel ready to tackle even the hardest, steepest, Ultras out there.  It teaches you what you are capable of and how to get yourself to what you aren't sure you can handle yet.

Staying Healthy


Tip-toeing over a stream.
I am really excited about 2015.  For the first time basically ever since I started running I have been putting in consistent miles and showing up for my races as planned.  The big key has been not being injured.  There might be a little luck involved with that, but I attribute it to a few key factors:
  • No "red-lining" - While I still get in some speed work and shorter races, I never really go "all out" or push it to an uncomfortable level.  This may be what it takes to PR in shorter races but its bad for longevity.
  • Less Pavement - Running on pavement is tough on your body, or at least on mine.  I try not to ever run more than 16 miles on pavement in training.  I'll feel more sore after an 18 mile training run on roads than a 50km run on trails.  Some people can handle high mileage strictly on roads; good for them.  Its a high risk of injury for me  as well as general burn-out and boredom.
  • No "hard" marathons - this is kind of a combo of the previous points.  While a road marathon is fine every now and then, running lots of them or trying to PR carries a high risk of injury and the need for significant time off after.
  • Shoes - I've figured out what works for me and what doesn't. Hokas seem to be working well.  I'm also losing my belief that you should be fitted for stability shoes to match your pronation level.  I used to run solely in Motion Control shoes and got injured all the time.  I've been running in Hokas which are considered neutral (with Orange Superfeet) for the past year and have felt great.  I have become more of a believer in developing your own personal natural running technique and less in shoes and other off-the-shelf equipment.  Shoes can help, but they are really a stop-gap solution.
  • Resting when needed and recovering right - I am finally not doing stupid stuff like running while injured, running back to back road long runs, doing speedwork on consecutive days, and other obvious bonehead moves that I used to do.  Even if im not feeling sore after a goal race I'll take some time off (as in no running for a week), and then a few more weeks to ease back into it at a low mileage level.
  • Skipping races or big training runs - I hate skipping races, but if I'm feeling really banged up or burned out I will forego a training run or even a non-goal race.  Sometimes I'll substitute a big cycling ride or I'll just completely rest from physical activity.  Its better to be conservative and get to your true goal races healthy and full of energy.
  • Finally used to being a runner - all these factors, all the training runs, races, and recovery periods just add up to your body being adept at running a lot.

Up Next


So while I have a slew of races planned for 2015, included a few goal races, one event stands alone:
The Big Horn 100 miler in Wyoming.

The Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming, site of Big Horn 100.  Pictures and a great race write-up from Asymptotic Running!

Here are the rest of my "A" and "B" goal races.


  • JFK 20k & MLK 5k, Jan 17
  • Elizabeth Furnace 50k, March 14
  • Terrapin Mtn 50k, March 21
  • Bull Run 50 miler, April 11
  • Big Horn 100 Miler, June 18
  • Reston Century 100 mile bike ride, Aug 30
  • The Ring 70 miler, Sept 5
  • Everything else I'm doing I try to consider more of a training run and therefor tentative if push comes to shove.  You can check the "2015 Races" sidebar for the rest of my planned outings.  I haven't really got anything planned past summer - its way to early to think about what you will want to be doing in Fall anyway.

    So here's to another year of miles in the books!

    Wednesday, December 24, 2014

    Hellgate: the 66.6 mile mountain run that starts at Midnight

    There will be no pictures here. No selfies or over-enthusiastic thumbs-up.  No iPhone panoramas.  And certainly no instagramming, hashtagging, or tweeting.  A lot of races try to advertise a "fast and flat course" or a "scenic course" to sugar coat what lies ahead.  Hellgate sounds hard; its supposed to be hard.  Its a special race and while you have to run it to understand, I will do my best to sum it up with words.

    Finish Time: 15:24:58
    Starting Time: 12:01am, December 13th, 2014


    That Friday didn't really go as planned, but does it ever?  My plan was to sleep in and go in for a short day of work, but I ended up with an early meeting so that wasn't possible.  I was able to come home around 11 and snooze for a couple hours though before I headed out.  We got down in great time, ate at the pre-race dinner and shortly after snuggled up with 140+ other runners for the pre-race briefing.  Somehow Dr. Horton manages to infuse enough humor into his briefings to keep even the most fidgety of runners interested.

    The briefing ended around 8:30pm, but we weren't headed to the start until 10:45, so we had a couple hours to sit around (yay...), lay-down, and prep our gear.  The weather was great by Hellgate standards, we had temps at Camp Bethel in the 40s, clear with very little wind.  I brought clothing for 3 different weather conditions, which are hard to predict until the night of.  The challenge is to be warm enough that you won't freeze up on top of the mountains at 4am, while not getting too warm at the lower elevations earlier on.  Once the sun comes up you can always shed layers in a drop bag or carry them on your pack.  I ended up wearing light-weight running pants with shorts on top (so I could shed the pants later if needed), a long-sleeve tech shirt, a light shell, gloves and a hat.  This ended up being the perfect choice; I was a little hot at the start but once we were into the coldest part of the night I was glad to have everything.

    Hellgate has seen conditions ranging from the 50s at the start during warm years, to having starting temps in the 20s, with lows in the 0s, often complimented by sleet and snow.  Though harsher elements provide for a "true" Hellgate experience, I was happy to have relatively nice weather for my first running.

    I attempted to lie down a bit and sleep.  While most people aren't actually able to sleep it does feel good to just kind of get off your feet and medicate before your hectic final preparations.  At 10:45pm I met up with my ride and we followed the train of cars on a 30 minute drive to the start.


    A more accurate representation of the course elevation and aid station locations.

    The Prologue

    After lining up at the official Hellgate gate we sang the national anthem, counted down to 12:01am and we were off!  Into the night, into the unknown, with our paths lit by dozens of bobbing headlamps.  The first few miles are fairly easy, mostly grassy jeep roads with a few ups and downs.  There are a few minor creek crossings that you can hop over, and a more substantial creek crossing that you are wise to just walk through.  While it might be possible to tip-toe around it, the rocks are slippery and one wrong step will put you on your ass in the rock-filled creek.  Not a good way to start your day, er, night.

    My feet dried out fast; within a mile I forgot had just waded through water.  I was getting a little warmer so I shed my outer shell and felt fine.  Aid station 1 only had water, most people skipped it but I did grab a quick sip.

    Forest Serivce Road 35 (AS 1: mile 4)

    The next section was both boring and inspiring.  It was a long march up a gravel road, runable in some spots and speed-hikebale elsewhere.  There was only about a half-moon that night but it was still enough to let you turn off your headlamp and gaze out over the mountains.  Soon you could see a trail of headlights further down the mountain.  Coming into Petites Gap aid station I got another sip of water and pushed on.  I knew it was only about 5 miles to the next aid station so I wasn't too worried.  However, the distance between AS 3 and 4 is closer to 9 miles so I knew I would need to refuel there.

    Petites Gap (AS 2: mile 8)

    Soon after leaving Petites Gap we crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway and got back onto a single track trail heading downhill.  I was looking forward to getting to open up my stride downhill, but the trail is fairly rocky and has lots of little turns which, combined with the darkness of being back in the forest, meant a fairly cautious pace.  We emptied out onto a grassy jeep road which was a nice change.  You soon take a right turn back into technical trails.  Apparently this is a turn people have missed, though it was very obvious to me.  After the trails we had another uphill to aid station 3 Camping Gap.  I knew we had a long section ahead of us, something like 9 miles which could take upwards of 2 hours.  I took a real stop here, refilled my bladder, ate some real food, and grabbed some more to eat on the way.

    I had a slight hold up here as well.  My bladder ended up not getting screwed on correctly, and when I tested it (as I always do before leaving an AS) it was spilling everywhere.  I had to refuel it again as well as deal with a pack soaked with cold water.  It dried out soon at least.  This is why I try to be pretty insistent that I like to fill up my own pack; I hate coming off as rude or ungrateful to volunteers who are just trying to help, but those bladders are tricky to seal back up and its usually faster to just do it myself.

    It was probably around 3:00am at this point, we were entering into the coldest part of the night but I was still feeling pretty good.  Not as tired as I thought I would be.  Still we were only 13 miles into Hellgate so I could now consider myself "warmed-up".

    Camping Gap (AS 3: mile 13)

    What followed Camping Gap was long in duration, but a lot of it was runable which kept me warm and also staged off any hunger.  This was the highest section of the race in terms of elevation, and run at the coldest time of the night the risk of hypothermia could creep in if you aren't dressed properly and don't keep moving.  It wasn't very memorable, just a mix of trails and jeep roads.  Rather than think about the 9+ miles to the next aid station, I just counted down: 4 miles down, half-way! Kinda... Then 4 more miles down. And  then 1 more mile which is easy to quantify.

    Rolling into the aid station it was very cold out.  There was a lot of wind up here which added to the sense of urgency to get out of this aid station promptly.  We had access to our drop bags here, so I got in mine, took an advil, grabbed an apple, and drank my starbucks coffee drink.  The volunteers here were really helpful, opening up both the advil and the coffee drink for me, as well as stocking me up with warm food.  I refilled my bladder and was off, happy to get running again and warm back up in the woods where the wind was blocked some.

    Somewhere along the way my headlamp was really starting to dim.  This is tricky though because you need a light to replace the batteries so you can see what you are doing.  I saw someone not far behind me on the trail and they kindly shined light on me for enough time to change batteries.  Another lesson learned: its important to plan your battery changes either at aid stations, or by carrying a supplemental light to assist you  This is a great thing about Ultras, your "competitors" are usually eager to help you too.  It goes both ways - I've given out Gu's or sips of water during races to others.  All part of the Ultra feel.  Though I doubt the lead pack is as giving.

    Headforemost Mountain (AS 4: mile 24)

    Coming out of AS 4 I soon met up with my friend Danny Rogers and we got to run together to the next AS.  This helped pass the time and provided some company.  This section saw more single track, some rocky and downhill, as well as jeep roads.  It was still very dark out, probably still before 6:00am.  The night was starting to wear on me.  Hellgate is run close to the longest night of the year, so even though we start at midnight thats still 7 hours of darkness.  Knowing that sunrise was only an hour away did at least help some.

    Jennings Creek (AS 5: mile 31)

    Coming out of Jennings Creek we finally started to see some light and soon the sun was up.  This was a huge mental boost!  Getting out in the open you could feel the sun's rays warming you up.  On the downside I was having some stomach issues in this section.  I was feeling hungry but eating at the aid stations just didn't seem to do the trick.  Energy Gels usually do not help this feeling either.  I was able to eat some tums which helped but my stomach was still churning.  I took a pit stop in the woods which helped some but I was still not feeling great.  I was past the half-way mark (around 34 miles in) which was kind of nice, but also kind of depressing that I was only half-way!  I trudged on up the gravel road to the next aid station.

    Little Cove Mountain (AS 6: mile 38)

    AS6 was smaller, and kind of demoralized me in a way.  My Garmin read 38 miles, but the sign at the aid station only said mile 34.5!  I don't know why but that 3.5 miles really seemed to make a difference.  I know that when you deal with "Horton Miles" the estimates can be off, but I didn't think they would be off that much.  At that point I assumed my watch was wrong.  My stomach wasn't feeling great, but I was able to get some warm food and then after the AS was a downhill stretch which felt good to jog.

    A little later I met up with another runner who had an accurate mileage chart.  His watch read the same mileage as mine and the chart confirmed that we were further than the aid station indicated.  This was a big relief at the time.  Having someone to chat with also helped distract me from stomach and sleep issues and got me into a good running zone to carry me into the next stop.

    Bearwallow Gap (AS 7: mile 47)

    Bearwallow Gap was another morale booster.  It really started to feel like we were close to the finish.  I met my pacer here and was able to dump some stuff off with my pacer's ride.  I had a drop bag here but ended up not even needing it. The aid station was fully stocked, and my friend Danny left a starbucks double-shot behind which I happily utilized.  I wasn't really sure if I needed a pacer at Hellgate, and a lot of people go without, but I took my friend up on the offer and I was really glad I did.  20 miles out from the finish still meant over 5 hours!

    My Garmin 305 was giving me a low battery alert so I ditched it here.  My pacer had a GPS watch of his own and I was able to compile the data from both units after the race.  This ended up giving a very accurate depiction of the race since those units ping about every 4 minutes.  The longer lasting, ultra-specific GPS units ping satellites way less to conserve battery life, but can result in less accurate mapping.

    This section had some ups and downs but nothing long in duration, and a lot of parts were pretty runnable.  One strange effect of the race, being held after fall and with dry conditions, were that a lot of the trails were rutted out, rocky, and filled with leaves (the rocks are hidden beneath the leaves).  This made for really difficult footing even in the flat parts.  Annoying but thats just part of Hellgate.

    Bobblets Gap (AS 8: mile 53)

    Bobblets Gap was another quick refuel followed by a fairly uneventful section to Day Creek AS.  There were some ups and down and some more of the now infamous rocks-hidden-by-leaves ruts, but I was so close to finishing that it was trivial.  It felt great getting into Day Creek; one last quick stop.  I went out of my way to thank the volunteers there too - I recognized them from earlier aid stations, which meant they had been up all night!

    Day Creek (AS 9: mile 60)

    Soon after leaving the Day Creek AS we started our final climb for the day.  I stripped down to shorts and a long sleeve shirt and started power hiking.  This final climb wasn't a big deal, though I did get pretty exhausted at a few points and took some short breathers.  Up, up, up, then we crossed the Blue Ridge parkway and it was down, down, down.  Nice that the final few miles were runnable.  We got out onto a flatter gravel road and another runner started edgeing up on me from behind.  I really didn't want to get passed with a mile to go, so I kicked it into high gear with 1 mile left.

    The Finish at Camp Bethel (mile 66.6)

    I was so in the zone I actually almost missed the final turn into Camp Bethel!  I didn't see the marking, but the entrance was obvious so I made the sharp left into camp, then into the chute and finally done! I kissed the ground at the end.  Hellgate was very difficult.  Finishing at Camp was perfect, after getting my finisher swag and my Beast Trophy I was able to take a shower, put on clean clothes, grab some snacks, and then take a well-deserved nap before my friend arrived to pick me up at like 6:00pm.

    I was worried that finishing The Beast series would overshadow Hellgate.  It didn't - I felt very accomplished at the end of Hellgate, almost so much that closing out the Beast was just a bonus.  This is a special race and now I get to be on the inside looking out.

    During these races I'll often feel like I left a part of myself behind.  A little piece of me got left out there on the mountain in the middle of the night when the wind was blowing, for no one else to see.  Sometimes when I'm sitting at my desk at work I imagine what it is and where it might be.  If things work out in 2015 for me I would like to return to Hellgate to find it.

    Monday, December 15, 2014

    Rising from Hellgate to Slay the Beast

    Just some quick reflections.  Last weekend I finished Hellgate in 15:24:58 and with that completed The Beast Ultra series, my primary goal for 2014.

    Hellgate is a special Ultra.  Its been called a "Spiritual Awakening" before, as well as a "Final Exam" to Ultra-running.  It was very difficult and I had to put everything I have learned into practice.  The race starts at 12:01am, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in December.  You can't register for it - you have to "apply" via a paper registration form and the Race Director (the notorious David Horton) can accept your application if he feels you have a shot at completing it and deserve to run it.  There are only around 145 runners allowed in each year.  Outside Magazine Online even included it in their 10 race Trail Runners' bucket list with other spectacular yet sometimes low-key races around the world.

    The Beast is an ultra series spanning a calendar year.  The prelude is three 50km races in the Spring.  This really ends up being a warm-up to the fall portion, which features a 100 miler, a 50 miler, and lastly the Hellgate 66.6 mile run.  All but one of the races feature very challenging terrain with long, steep climbs and descents.

    Clark Zealand, race director of 3 of the Beast Series Races
    (David Horton directs the other 3) presenting me the
    Beast Series Finisher trophy.  Its a bear, and they mail you
    a plaque with your name, the races, and finish times to affix
    to the front.  I think thats pretty sweet!

    While I am feeling very accomplished, its more of a subtle feeling.  Maybe it just hasn't sunk in yet but its not the jumping-for-joy feeling I've got after getting PRs in shorter distances.  I think this bodes well though with the essence of Ultras, quiet awe over ruckus jubilation.

    I plan on writing up a full race report on Hellgate as well as a recap of The Beast series soon.