Running should feel natural

Running should feel natural

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.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Mountain Masochist 50 Miler Recap

Only one month removed from my first 100 miler, which also happens to be the self-proclaimed "hardest 100 miler east of the 100th meridian.", I found myself on the starting line of a challenging 50 miler run through the blue ridge mountains.

The Mountain Masochist Trail Run would actually turn out to be a lot of fun, an effort I'm proud of, and my favorite 50 miler to date!

Finish Time10:00:53
Date: November 1, 2014

Coming off of Grindstone I had no idea what to expect.  I rested a week, and then as I got back to my normal daily running routine I felt surprisingly good.  I did 1 loop of a low-key 50k for a 16 mile training run 2 weeks out.  While my energy levels felt great, my hips were getting a little sore by the end.  1 week out from MMTR I did a 68 mile bike ride called "The Great Pumpkin Ride" out in Warrenton.  It was nice to get back out on the bike one last time for the year, and while I felt strong the whole time those nagging hips did get sore a few times.  The last week before MMTR was just some easy running spooling down in time for the race.

I'll skip the usual race travel details and get to the race, starting off from the KOA Wildwood Campground in Monroe, VA.  We set off right at 6:30am, into the dark, with our headlights on.  About the first mile was pretty flat and on pavement which allowed the crowds to thin out nicely.  While this first section was not exactly flat, it was mostly runnable and even the uphills were short enough to run up.  We encountered our first water crossing early on while it was still dark, and then a few others.  As is typical, I kind of cringe at the thought of getting my feet wet, but dancing through the streams is pretty fun and your feet dry out fairly quickly.  It was cloudy and took a while to get light out, but probably within 2 hours it felt like total daylight.

The course is point-to-point and there is a significant net uphill, so yes - you are going up more than you come back down but it didn't really feel like it at the time.  I was also fortunate to have a crew meet me at the Mt. Pleasant aid station and then again at the finish (with my car) to facilitate an easy drive home.  The race buses take you back to packet pickup area in Lynchburg if you need it though.

While I loved the run it was pretty uneventful.  It had some singletrack trail sections but was mostly on gravel jeep roads.  There were lots of aid stations, most of them only 3-5 miles apart.  Had I been more confident in the weather I would have only carried a hand bottle.  However, I wanted to have my pack to store some extra food and clothing.  I set off with a hat, gloves, and a shell jacket but soon got hot in the misty, 50 degree weather and stowed them.  As the day wore on and our elevation increased it got much colder and windy so I was happy to put my layers back on.  Speaking of, as the day wore on I was getting tired of eating the same typical cold foods and a few of the aid stations started having warm broth or soup.  This tasted amazing and really warmed me up from the inside.

Up, up, up, power hiking these hills before each subsequent downhill section where I was able to make up time.  I am still getting the hang of the best pacing strategy in the longer Ultras (50 miles and up).  While starting out super slow is a safe bet, I hate the thought of selling myself short and losing time where I would have been running faster.  Feeling great at the start of this race I made an effort to go out a little more aggressive than I normally would.  I seem to do well in the later stages of races.  I don't know if this means I'm going out too slow, just right, or that people around me are fading which is kind of a false positive as far as pacing goes.

2 hours into the race I was in 94th place of 277 runners and I finished in 68th place.  These numbers sound just about right.  There were about 30 runners who DNF'ed the course (DNF = Did Not Finish).  It should be noted that this just means they did not finish in the given time constraint (12 hours for this one, which is not an easy time limit).  This account both for people who pulled out early, and for those that could finish but did not make it to an aid station in time for the cut-off.

View from the top of Mt. Pleasant.  Photo courtesy of my
friend  Sanderson who was there pacing someone.
A unique part of the course was the loop from miles 33 to 38.5, around  Mt. Pleasant Nat'l Recreational area.  This portion was more of the rocky singletrack trails I've gotten used to in the Appalachian mountains.  While it slowed us down some, it felt good to stretch my legs on the different terrain.  This led to an overlook on Mt. Pleasant where we punched our bibs to prove we made it to the top.  Pictures of the view were inspiring, but today was windy and misty; I didn't have a camera either so I kept it short and immediately headed back down.

Other moments that felt decidedly different came as we crossed through some open farmland en route to the earlier aid station on Long Mountain with the drop bags.

After the loop it started feeling like the home stretch - just 12 miles to go.  You have to realize this could be 2-3 hours more depending on the terrain, but the mileage alone makes you feel like you are home free.  The next big section was pretty runnable and downhill, followed by the last few major climbs of the day.

Early on I had set a goal of around 10 hours for this race.  I felt like that was a fairly aggressive yet attainable goal for my first running on the course.  With about 4 miles to go we crested our last ridge and began a massive downhill section leading to the finish in Montebello.  I was a little behind but still flirted with a 10 hour finish so despite my sore hips and knees I tried to kick it in to overdrive and sprint down the hills.  The last mile was on pavement so I was able to knock out a sub-7 minute mile here.  Though I wasn't able to break 10 hours, I came in at 10:00:53 on the race clock.  Impressively close, though it made me wish I had taken about 5 seconds less time at each aid station!

After finishing I had a great feeling of accomplishment that I don't often experience.  I know Grindstone was a major accomplishment, but I still get more of out setting a time goal for myself and running a race well, then just being able to finish.  My legs (or rather, my whole body) was sore for the next couple days which told me I ran it to my full potential.

Its now really sinking in that I will be able to complete The Beast series.  As any runner will tell you, its a lot easier to put an event on your calendar than to actually complete it.  I've put in the training, the check-box workouts, the races, and now I have only the Hellgate 100k++ (and I use the term "only" lightly for this 66.6 mile race) left.  Completing The Beast is a special goal for me, more from a holistic perspective, to complete my transition into Ultra-running.  Whereas last year I was still more at home on the roads or just sticking with flat 50km races, completion of the Beast will give me the confidence to tackle almost any challenge, no matter how steep, remote, or rugged.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

No, really: How do I pace myself in the Marathon?

Pacing is another aspect of the Marathon that can take some getting used to.  We all expect the end of the race to be hard and challenging to keep up our pace, but the more deceptively difficult part is slowing yourself down the first half.

After the gun goes off and you get over the starting line, you would be wise to relax and just focus on getting warmed up.  With all the excitement and competitive atmosphere, do not get caught up in the groups of runners that sprint off the starting line.  Just focus on safe, even, splits.  It should still feel "easy".  You will usually get a burst of energy (and confidence) around 10 or 12 miles in.  After being totally warmed up and really into the meat of the race, you might be tempted to speed up, but you need to hold back and stay the course.  Around 16-17 miles in you will start to feel winded but should be able to keep up your pace.  Somewhere between the 18 and 22 mile mark is where a lot of people hit the "wall".  Run a smart pace, train well, and you won't hit it.  You will be tired here, but this is where being tough (both physically and mentally) can carry you through the last few miles on pace!

Pace Groups

One of the best things you can do it to utilize a pace group.  Races have these set up where several reliable pace leaders will run an evenly split marathon based on a certain time.  There should be plenty of info available at the race expo, on the website, and if thats not enough the morning of the race the pace leaders themselves will be holding up big signs or balloons with their expected finish time.

Pace groups at the Chicago Marathon.

The bigger races offer lots of pace group, some of them (like Chicago) even have an unheard of sub-3 hour marathon pace group.  Smaller races might only start at 3:30.  For instance, the Marine Corps Marathon here in DC has groups starting at 3:05 (the stringent men's under age 35 Boston qualifying time) up to 5:30.  To be precise: 3:05, 3:15, 3:25, 3:35, 3:45, 4:00, 4:15, 4:30, 4:45, 5:00, and 5:30.
Pace groups make sure you don't go out too fast, and then have some other people to hang on to toward the end of the race when you are fading.

What time should I shoot for?

For newer marathoners, I usually suggest people think of three times.  A "stretch" time, a "goal" time, and a "safe" time.  Maybe your's would go 4:15, 4:20, and sub 4:30.   Now, throw out the first two and aim for your "safe" time.  Trust me, the amount of fade you will experience in the last 6 miles if you go out even slightly too fast for yourself will set you back far beyond what a safer goal would have been!

Why the "Negative Split"?

Without going into the physiological reasons, you will simply run a faster race if you run the first half conservative and the second half as fast or faster than the first half.  A Negative Split is just that, running the second half faster than the first half.

Here is the thing:  if you go out, say, even 10 seconds per mile too fast, this could result in such a fade that you are slow running or even walking the last few miles, losing over a minute per mile.  So, 15 miles at 10 seconds too fast nets you 2.5 minutes.  If you are losing a minute per mile (or more) your last 8 miles, this costs you at least 8 minutes.

Its always better to have too much energy the 2nd half than not enough.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Tackling my first 100 miler the hard way at Grindstone


I had long pondered doing a 100 miler from when I first started doing Ultras a few years ago.  The 50ks and marathons I had started out doing could not even come close to preparing me for a 100 miler and I was wise to wait.  Its a steep jump up to the 100 mile distance, kind of like jumping from a half-marathon to a full.  Other than 50 milers (and the fairly rare 100 km races) there isn't really a stepping stone to the full 100 miler.

Why is it so different?  To be obvious, its twice as long as a 50 miler which was my previous longest distance, those being a hot, slog-it-out Northface 50 miler for my first, and the 2013 JFK 50 Miler for a focus race.  I've now come to realize that 50k Ultra Races, while great fun, are just kind of warm-ups to the grandaddy of the Ultra-Distance (the 100 miler).

The major differences are really less related to running and more holistic.  The challenges of eating and drinking for long enough to complete a 100 miler can be daunting.  Chaffing and blisters are now a possible race ender and not just a nuisance.  Your packing list practically quadruples.  Aid stations can eat up hours of your time (10 aid stations x 5-10 minutes each makes for over an hour of time!).  Oh, and you will now likely be moving for over 24 hours straight without sleeping.

I had thought about doing either Grindstone or Massanutten Mountain Trails as a first 100 since they are fairly local to me in Virginia.  These are the real deal, tough, mountainous and rugged.  Sure, there is no such thing as an "easy" 100 miler, but I wanted to jump right in and skip the flat, looped courses that a lot of people try out first (I still wouldn't mind doing Umstead or C&O Canal 100 someday though).  I decided early on in 2014 that I wanted to try for the Beast series challenge, consisting of three 50ks, a 50 miler, a 100k, and a 100 miler.  That 100 miler being Grindstone made it an easy decision, but still a tough pill to swallow.


Training hadn't been great, and I wasn't as methodical as during past Marathon build-ups, but I got one thing right: I got to the start line 100% healthy and uninjured, something that has been tough for me in the past with races.

I got a lot of check-box workouts in during the 6 months before Grindstone.  I ran all night, from sun-down to sun-up, I did some back2backs, and I was getting in consistent mileage usually in the 50-75 MPW range, though all the mid-week miles were on roads.  I made it out to the mountains plenty of times to practice on the hills and even did a focused all-day speed hike (no running).

There were things that didn't really pan out too.  I had to take more time off after Promise Land (having done Boston the previous week) than I had planned on.  I had to sit out a hilly summer race (Catoctin) since I was just feeling really banged up at that time and didn't want to risk injury.  I also wanted to get in a couple 100 mile bike rides and those didn't happen.  I didn't get the chance to run a 50 miler since JFK last year either.  They aren't easy to find in summer when its hot out, and I couldn't fit any fall 50 into my schedule.

I ended up getting to take an amazing trip to Japan in late summer that was responsible for missing a couple key runs.  I still got to put in some road miles while gone and an incredible hike up Mt. Fuji at least.  I'm still in the school of thought that "real life" trumps your running pursuits, and never have regrets about taking off for travel.

I'm also a firm believer that "You can never be over-trained, only under-rested".  In other words, its better to sit out or cut short some of your workouts in favor of not showing up injured or burnt out.

The course elevation overview.  They kind of like to emphasize that its full of extreme climbs and descents, and
with good reason!  Most of it is either up or down, with seldom flat areas.  It looks kind of demonic if you ask me!

Start to Falls Hollow (5.18 miles in)

It begins!  Obviously at this point you are just starting to think about getting settled in.  We curled around the lake at Camp Shenandoah and got out into the woods via some gravel roads.  As expected, it felt like a lot of people were going too fast and the only thing I could do now was try not to get caught up in the excitement.  This part was fairly easy, not a ton of elevation here so I just let myself run easy.  I had not even begun to grasp what I was embarking on.

Falls Hollow to Dowells Draft (mile 22.11)

We crossed a train tracks (thankfully there were no trains coming) and made our way to the first aid station at Falls Hollow.  Few people stopped here.  I pulled over for a quick snack.  It was however occurring to me that the weather was a force to be reckoned with.  It had started to drizzle on us, and since it was getting dark out people had the tendency to expect cold weather.  A lot of runners were wearing long sleeves and a shell jacket.  I only had on a long sleeve, but to my disbelief, I was HOT.  It was probably in the low 60s out and very humid.

As we got along our way, 10 or 12 miles into the footrace, embarking on our first massive climb, and as the sun had completely set giving way to total darkness the weight of the task was finally starting to sink in.  This was going to take a really, really long time.  This wasn't just a run, it was a complete endurance test.  The longest I had ever stayed awake in my life was probably for 24 hours up until this point.  I realized I would be staying up far longer than that, and while running, walking, and hiking the whole time. For this, and plenty of other reasons, I figured out that there is nothing that can truly prepare you for a 100 miler, not high weekly mileage, not back2back long runs, not Marathon PRs, not 50 milers, not 100 mile bike rides, not anything.

We marched on, through some fairly flat zones made barely runnable by tons of rocks everywhere, characteristic of the Geologically ancient Appalachian mountains.  Rocks covered by wet leaves were  made more tolerable by having so many other runners around.  The rain was persistent but not heavy.

Dowells Draft to Lookout Mountain (30.46)

Coming into Dowells Draft was a big sigh of relief.  I was tired, it was after 10pm, and I knew the night had just begun.  Dowells Draft was a larger aid station where I had access to my first drop bag.  I know I overpacked, but I was really packing for a variety of scenarios.  One thing I packed as a nice-to-have was a short sleeve tech T.  This came in handy as I had been burning up in the humid, misty night.  Changing into that cooled me down, and I was able to refuel my pack and get some snacks.

Broad overview of the coarse.  In the upper right is
the west side of Harrisonburg, VA for reference.
It has been said that 100 milers are just as much of an eating contest as they are a run.  The contest is with yourself, and its for how much food you can stuff yourself with without getting sick.  You will need the calories for this effort, and just because you aren't feeling hungry at the moment doesn't mean you won't feel starved later.  Fortunately, the food thing hasn't been a big issue with me.  I know how to graze along the way to stay full without eating too much.

Soon, I think around mile 22, I actually hit one of my lowest points for the weekend.  It was past midnight, some of the runners I had been around started to spread out leaving me feeling alone, the rain had turned into a fine mist that made it hard to see, and I was still sweating way too much.  I was getting tired, doubting myself, and even worse over-thinking it to the point that "if I'm already feeling this crappy I probably have no business in being out here in the first place."  I also had a weird itching sensation around my neck and scalp which was kind of freaking me out.

This was hard to dig myself out of.  I did at least figure out that it wasn't my vision fading, but instead that it was time to change the batteries in my headlamp.  This helped immensely, as after we crested the next mountain at around 25 miles in I got the chance to do some downhill running.

This section of the race was very difficult for a lot of reasons.  I knew I needed to make it to dawn but still being over 6 hours away it sounded like an eternity.  I was tired, the physical kind as well as the sleepy kind, but I just had to keep chugging along and get to that next aid station.

Running my first major race using hiking poles was different too, but I was really glad to have them on the uphills and the speed walking sections.  I didn't want to use them the whole race and debated when to drop them off (to be picked up on the way back).  Lookout Mountain at about 30 miles in was perfect.  This way, running with them the first and last 30 miles I would be using poles for a little over half the race.

Lookout Mountain to North River Gap  (36.81)

The Lookout Mountain aid station was a smaller one with no drop bags, but still a chance to refuel and take in some warm food.  I seem to recall tatter tots and some kind of salty soup here.  Once we got through the terrain leveled out a bit to at least be mostly runable.  I was kind of coming out of my previous funk but ran into another runner who was on a low point.  He was friendly and I was glad to have the company, so we started chatting and running together.  We soon joined part of the Wild Oak Trail, though nothing seemed familiar since it was still total darkness.

Up until this point I had also though I was taking forever to get through this thing, but after a few sections that involved consistent running (rather than just speed hiking up a mountain and attempting to safely descend) we calculated we were on a reasonable pace.  Coming to a pedestrian suspension bridge that I recognized from training runs on the Wild Oak Trail I knew it would just be a few more miles until the next big aid station.

North River Gap to Little Bald Knob (44.64)

North River Gap was a major aid station, with a weigh in, a variety of food, and access to another drop bag.  I think I actually gained a pound! Guess I was eating and drinking a lot.  I wasted no time refueling and getting some snacks.  I think I had pierogies, quesadillas, and more fruit to-go.  Here I wisely changed my socks for the 2nd time today as well, and re-lubed my feet and some other areas that were showing early signs of chaffing.

Leaving the aid station I had the hardest part of the race up next.  Heading up the steep climb on the Wild Oak Trail I hit a new low.  It was still dark out (probably 4:30am), I was feeling extremely sleepy, the steep trail that went up-up-up just didn't seem to end, and (gasp) I started experiencing the dreaded stomach issues I had heard about.  I had mixed my Tailwind a bit strong at the last aid station and drinking it just made me feel sick; all I wanted was plain old water.  My stomach was sloshing around and I almost wanted to puke.  I made due, trudging up the mountain taking frequent breaks to catch my breath as the sweat continued to poor down my forehead.  I was still running with my friend from back at Lookout Mountain and having company really helped me get through.

As things started to level out the trail also started to become flatter and less technical, and then we caught our first glimpses of daylight.  While this was uplifting, with the daylight also came a new cold front that had started to blow in.  On the plus side, I had a feeling If I could dig deep and make it through this section I would be able to handle anything else Grindstone threw at me.

Little Bald Knob to Turn-Around (51.56)

This part was fairly uplifting.  The stop at the Little Bald Knob aid station was badly needed.  My runner friend and I were cold and were happy to have some breakfast burritos and sit by the fire.  After a recharge we headed back out onto some fairly flat terrain.  There was another small aid station before the climb up to the top of Reddish Knob to punch our bibs.

Awesome views up on Reddish Knob, where we went to punch our bibs.  Reminds me of the Grindstone logo.
The views were incredible in all directions.  Being timely wasn't really a priority to me so I hung out a bit, took some pictures, and traded picture taking with a couple other runners.  This small section of the course was paved so I was able to run back down.  I turned my phone off of airplane mode and even had some service on the next road.  Friends and family back home were happy to hear from me.  Soon the course dipped down and we came into contact with a pacer point.  This was great race logistics, as we could give our pacers a heads' up to be ready for us soon.

Turn-Around to Little Bald Knob (57.82)

I was SO happy to pick up my pacer!  My friend and fellow ultra runner Elena was waiting for me, ready to motivate me and keep me company in the lonely second half of my race.  Things were pretty low key, just running when possible and walking up any steep inclines.  She did a great job reminding me to eat, drink, and stop running when things got too steep.

Little Bald Knob to North River Gap (65.65)

Back at the aid station I wasn't able to change socks but I could at least clean my feet off and re-lube everything.  By this point I was feeling very fortunate to not have had any blister problems, but I really attribute it to frequently changing socks and just being very used to my running shoes.  I had a few minor chafing issues but reapplying petroleum jelly at aid stations kept it in check.

North River Gap to Lookout Mountain (72.00)

Having passed the 100 km mark (roughly 62 miles) helped me feel at ease.  A lot of people told me this is kind of the mental half-way point.  You will be feeling tired, but you shouldn't be exhausted or having any major problems (stomach issues, cramping, blisters, chaffing, etc.)

North River Gap was a big aid station and I took a little time here to really eat some food, change socks, and relube more than a few spots.  Soon after leaving I felt a slight blister rubbing on my little toe, so I had to pull over, de-shoe yet again, and tape up that spot just to be safe.  With over 35 miles left this wasn't something I could ignore.

My legs had been getting progressively more sore throughout the day.  At this point I was still able to run the flats, downhills, and gentle uphills but my quads were fading.  My pacer kept me motivated, kept promising me I would get that belt buckle, and gracefully deflected my complaints.

Lookout Mountain to Dowells Draft (80.35)

I picked my poles back up at Lookout Mountain which I dumped on the way out.  This section saw some more fairly runnable terrain and wasn't entirely memorable.  It was just me and my pacer for most of the way.  Dowells Draft was a major aid station that I had some time well spent at.  I changed into warmer clothes, refueled as usual, and most notably said good-bye to my awesome pacer Elena and met up with my new pacer Carl.

My cold-weather attire.

Dowells Draft to Dry Branch Gap (87.83)

Another huge climb here.  So glad to have my Pacer with me.  At Dowells Draft I changed into tights and grabbed another long sleeve shirt.  It was dusk now and not really cold yet so I questioned my decision.  I get hot easily.  Within a couple hours it was dark and the temperature was dropping.  A wicked wind prevailed high on the mountains that made me very glad to have dressed a bit warmer.  I would have froze my behind off had I still been wearing shorts and a short-sleeve shirt.

Dry Branch Gap to Falls Hollow (96.67)

Things got simpler now, and a little blurry in hindsight.   Just trudging on, run a little, walk a lot, or preferably speed hike.  I tried not to look at my watch as the only thing that mattered was that I wasn't there yet.

It was tough thinking about how much time I had left.  Moving at a mere 2-3 miles per hour up some of these mountains I calculated several more hours just to get through another 15 miles.  Again I was doing a lot of complaining, and again I had a pacer who focused on the positives ("always one foot in front of the other") and told plenty of stories to pass the time.

In those last 20 miles I was even lucky enough to experience some of the infamous hallucinations I've heard about, from a combination of physical exhaustion, sleep derivation, and boredom.  It wasn't anything major, just random stuff really looking like other random stuff.

I saw a satellite, it was actually a tree.  I saw what I was sure was an aid station, also a tree.  An electrical panel, yep also a tree.  A jig-saw puzzle, it was a rock (but it really did kind of look like a jig-saw puzzle on the side!).  A smiley face, which was some leaves on a rock.  I even had visions of my dog running out of the woods to join me!  Fun stuff.

Falls Hollow to the Finish (101.85)

So long! Yup - thats Hours:Minutes:Seconds.
More pain.  But at least we were so close I could almost taste it.  I felt really tired in the last aid station, but after refilling and woofing down a banana and some soup I had a burst of energy.  Back on the trail, while still not able to run, we did some serious speed hiking up the first hill.  I had just replaced the batteries one last time in my headlamp, and it started flickering which caused a minor freak out.  Turned out I just didn't have the clasp down all the way, a minor set back.  We trudged on through the night, surprisingly trading places with some other runners.

There was probably more second guessing the turns in these last few miles than in the rest of the entire race.  It was dark, we were tired, and the markings didn't look like they did in daylight.  We actually made a wrong turn following some other runners but everyone realized the mishap within a half mile.  At this point I had a serious case of "are we there yet?".  We saw signs about entering Camp Shenandoah which told me we were close.  Finally, yes finally, we came around the bend to the lake at the Camp.  A small but steep incline that required climbing up was the site of my only fall of the entire weekend, more of an accidental lay-down going up the hill.  Getting back up we attempted some slow, shuffle running.  Up the road and with the finish line in sight I picked up the pace to run it in.

Got my buckle.

My awesome pacers and I post-race.  Elena (mile 50-80) and
Carl (mile 80-101.85).  Couldn't have done it without them!
Wow, I wasn't sure what to think when I crossed the finish line.  Over 33 hours on my feet, hadn't slept in almost 48 hours.  I think I was so exhausted I didn't really have any emotions left to give. I was just happy to be done and now a 100 mile runner.  My pacers both ended up being at the finish which was very cool, along with a few other well wishers.

I headed into the lodge for a quick snack and some water.  After sitting down I started shaking or shivering which felt weird.  I didn't feel "cold", but I think even inside my body was so exhausted it had trouble keeping warm.  A very helpful boy scout took note and brought me a blanket!  Just a small example of the many awesome volunteers and supporters I came into contact with that weekend.  Soon I headed to my tent, crawled into my warm sleeping bag and slept harder than I had ever slept.

Whats Next?

Part of the way I motivated myself in some of the low points was by telling myself I could take as long off from running as I felt like, and that I didn't have to complete the Beast Series (with a 50 miler and 100 km race still to come in 2014).  While this was effective, a few days after finishing I realized that I must complete the Beast.  I've come too far - three 50ks and a 100 miler; the hardest part was over.

I did feel like I finished slower than my potential, though really since my goal was just to finish I didn't mind.  Usually when I mentioned I was doing Grindstone as my first 100 miler people would have a semi-astounded reaction.  This made me feel better about my late race fade.

Looking out even further I do want to take a break after the Beast is over, but I'm sure by mid-spring I'l be itching for another goal race (Bull Run 50 miler perhaps).  After that, I know I'll want to do another 100 miler.  I understand the addiction, however its just so tough, such an undertaking I will be picking and choosing my 100 milers very carefully.  Feeling so accomplished now, it can be easy to forget how difficult Grindstone was, and how many low points made me want to quit and ball up into the fetal position.  For now I'm just enjoying finally getting to look at the 100 mile experience from the other side - 101.85 miles to be exact.  100's are freaking hard!!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Finally done with my first 100

Just a quick blurb before I am able to write up a real race recap.

Its finally over!  I completed my first 100 miler at Grindstone last weekend, and it was freaking tough!  This was a particularly hard 100 miler so it surprised a lot of people I chose this as my first.  Rocky terrain, long, steep ascents and descents, and a 6:00pm friday start time meant even more sleep deprivation than a morning start.

There were no easy sections, and I had to dig myself out of lows that I never thought I could experience.  I hiked the uphills and some of the downhills.  I speed walked the majority of the last 25 miles as my legs were so sore I could barely get them to run.  But its done.  And while I kinda hated the whole thing, I also kinda loved it.

How long did this take me? A long time.  The first half took about 15 hours and the second half took much longer at 18 hours due to all the walking, for a grand total of 33 hours, 31 minutes, 11 seconds to get through 101.85 miles and 23,000 feet of elevation gain/ loss.  Thats over 33 hours on your feet walking and running.

At the finish, new buckle in hand.

Just glad to be finished, feeling accomplished, refueling & resting, and after only a day surprisingly not too sore.  Full race recap to come.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

No, really: what do you eat and drink for a Marathon?

What you eat and drink on race day is one of many factors that contributes to success.  While it can be very personalized, there are some tried and true tactics that most people use.

First off, you shouldn't really be thinking about what to eat race day until you have already figured out what works in your training runs.  This will give you a way to plan, feel confident, and get used to eating and drinking on the run.  On training runs longer than 12 or 13 miles you should be drinking along the way (especially in hot weather) and taking gels.  I like drinking an electrolyte drink to refuel, however if I need something to wash down a gel I stick with water.

What to pregame with?

And of course by pregame I mean what you will be eating the week before the race and the morning of.  There are lots of radical, alternative diets catching on now with runners and fitness enthusiasts.  Maybe they will work for you, maybe they won't.  I believe in sticking with a balanced diet, extra heavy on carbohydrates the week before your race.  Carbo-loading doesn't just have to only be the day before a race, better to start a few days out.  In fact, the day before a big race I like to make lunch my biggest meal, and then try to have an early dinner.  Eating too big a dinner too late in the evening can cause your digestive system to, ahem, get a late start on race morning and you don't want to be running to the port-a-pottie during the marathon if you can help it.

The morning of the race you should be sticking with whatever morning routine you have developed throughout your training runs.  For me, that's a bagel with PB&J on it, a small cup of coffee, a glass of water, and a banana if its a longer run or on marathon day.  If I'm going to be waiting around for a few hours before I actually start running I'll have a breakfast sandwich instead of a bagel.  Get something in your system, but be careful not to eat too much.

Just think, for an 8:00am race start, you might be waking up at 4:30am! Thats 3.5 hours of waiting around time, plenty of time to get very hungry.  While you don't want to start a race "full", you don't want to start hungry either.  You should just be sort of "not-hungry" when you start.

You should plan out the minute-by-minute logistics of your race day ahead of time, when to get up, how long it takes to get dressed, when and what to eat, when to leave for your race, what time you expect to get there, what you need to do before you get in the corrals, and finally an estimate of how long you'll be standing around until you hear the gun go off!

What to eat while you run?

There are a lot of Gels on the market now including Gu, PowerGel, Stinger, Hammer Gel, ShotBlocks and Vfuel just to name a few!  While its important to find the brand that sits well with you,  keep in mind the race will probably only offer one of them so you will want to be used to that.  For instance, I think Marine Corps Marathon gives out Gu brand gels, while Boston gives out PowerGel from PowerBar.  Make sure you are used to your race-specific gel if you plan on eating it.

On your long runs (any run more than 18 miles or 3 hours in duration) you may even want to add in some more solid food like chips or pretzels.  Salty foods are usually a good choice as they also help replace sodium loss.  These can be carried with you on race day in a hydration belt, or held by someone you know spectating to hand off as you run by.

A lot of these sports nutrition products come either caffeinated or not caffeinated.  You might want to stick with the non-caffeinated ones unless you really find a benefit to the ones with caffeine.  I'll usually do non-caff for the first couple, and then start taking ones with caffeine for an extra boost later on.  Gu offers an "extreme" version of their gels called "Roctane", which has lots of extra caffeine, sodium, and calories.  These typically are not handed out so I like to carry one with me for when I need a jolt!

How often?

In training runs I get by on less than in the marathon.  I'll still try to drink about every 45 minutes on runs longer than 10 miles, and take a Gu once every hour or so if I'm running more than 13 miles.  How much should you drink? It depends on how thirsty you are!  If its hot out you should be drinking more, like a full cup or two at aid stations.  If its cooler out, as races tend to be, probably a few sips or a half-cup of water should be enough.  You don't want to be drinking so much that you have to stop and use the bathroom, but its better to drink too much than not enough.  Find your sweet spot during your training runs!

On marathon day I like to eat a gel and a few sips of water about 15 minutes before the race starts.  Then I'll take a sip of water or electrolyte drink at every aid station which usually means about every 4-5 miles.  I'll eat a gel around the 9 mile mark, and then eat another every 5 or so miles, always washing it down with water.  I might even eat an extra gel or two between miles 18-23 as these are the crucial, make-it-or-break-it miles.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Conquering Fuji

While on vacation in Japan my friend and I decided to hike Mount Fuji, the highest mountain (actually a strato-volcano) in Japan.  Mount Fuji was simply incredible, and it almost didn't happen.

Mt. Fuji is located about 80 miles outside of Tokyo, or a 2.5 hour bus ride to the 5th Station.  While we knew it wouldn't be impossible (tons of people attempt it) we also knew it wouldn't be easy (not everyone makes it to the top).  And we wanted to enjoy this, not have a "how long 'till I'm done" death-march.

Doesn't look so big from down here!

The Plan

We were going to take a bus from Shinjuku area of Tokyo in the morning, to arrive at the base of Mt. Fuji around noon.  Once we got started it would be a 5-6 hour hike in daylight to the 8th station hut, where we had a reservation that included dinner and breakfast.  Everyone goes to bed at like 8pm there, and gets woken up at 2:30am.  After breakfast we would hike the final bit to the summit in time to catch sunrise at 5:20am.

Mt. Fuji is near the center.  Tokyo is in the far upper right.

The Reality

The plan seemed doomed from the start.  We went out a little too late the night before and slept in that morning.  We then found out that the bus rides needed to be reserved ahead of time.  There was space on a 1:30pm bus so we high-tailed it to the bus station, but ended up missing that bus by about 10 minutes.  So we reserved spots on the 2:30pm bus and waited around for that.  We bought some extra water in nearby stores and I bought a "pocket jacket", kind of a heavy duty poncho since I had forgotten my rain-shell at home.  To make matters worse, we spoke with our Station 8 hut and, convinced that we had no chance to make it in time, they strongly urged us to cancel our reservation to which we obliged.

We were able to store the bulk of our belongings in lockers at the bus station and reduce down to only day packs.  This ended up being a big advantage to hike with maybe 10 pounds of gear total rather than the 30 or 40 pounds that most other people seemed to carry (there was some serious over-packing going on from most hikers).  We boarded our 2:30pm bus and were off to Mt. Fuji!  I took advantage of the 2.5 hour bus ride to catch up on some badly needed sleep.

The Ascent: part 1

We arrived at the 5th station, the main drop off point for people climbing Mt. Fuji.  We new we had to be hasty here.  After a few pictures, filling up our water bottles, and buying some last minute supplies, we embarked on the trail.  It was still light out but the sunlight was fading fast.  The trail was flat and wide for about the first hour, but soon turned steeply uphill and thinned out.  Darkness was starting to set in so we switched on our headlamps.

I had heard its slow going in many sections, but mostly due to crowds getting backed up at certain parts of the trail.  Lucky for us it was no longer the high season and most people that were hiking today had already been through.  We should have been feeling hungry but small snacks and water breaks were enough to sustain us.  The 5th station was around 6,000 ft in elevation, and approaching 8,000 ft a few hours up the air was thinning and we were breathing hard.  This did at least kill most if any of our appetite.

I was worried, we had limited supplies with us, clothing that wouldn't really hold up in a rainstorm or if the temperatures fell dramatically, and [worst of all] we did not yet have a place to stay for the night.  Trudging on past the 6th aid station, snack shacks, and ranger stations, we reached the 7th station.  There was a hut here, the Toyokan Inn, and we agreed that if they had space we would stop.

We were in luck - they had plenty of room so at around 8:30pm the first leg of our journey was over.  Couldn't have been happier to have a place to sleep!

The Stay

The hut was nice and clean, albeit slim on luxeries.  There was a front room for hanging out, presumably used for meals otherwise, where we could go through our things and get organized.  The entire facility looked modern and sturdy.  From the looks of the bunk areas they might have been at 50% capacity.  The bunks were 2 stories, platforms with sleeping bags on thin mattresses.  There was enough space between each one to make it private and extra curtains to keep the light out.  Laying down at 9:00pm I slept like a rock.

We woke at around 2:30am debating if it was worth leaving so early while the sound of pouring rain made use decide wisely to sleep longer.  Around 3:30am we awoke again to an alarm.  After surveying the weather we decided it was time to go.  After packing up and suiting up, a few drinks of water and some snacks, we headed out well before sunrise.

The Ascent: part 2

We set back out at around 4:00am in total darkness but with our headlamps on.  The ground was wet from the aforementioned rain but the skies were clearing up.  We were extremely happy to have slept through the rain, which may not have been an option if we had stayed at the 8th station hut as previously planned!

The hike started out slow, climbing and clamoring over rocks and holding onto guard chains.  Lucky for us there were very few other people on this part of the mountain so we could go as fast or as slow as we wanted.  We trudged on, through narrow, rocky passes, and then the trail gradually opened up into a section of switchbacks where we could collect ourselves mentally.  It was still a little misty out now but the skies were clearing.  While it was getting light out we were still about 15 minutes from sunrise and hoped for a clear sky soon.  Then, miraculously, the clouds did not so much clear as they appeared to lower and we were able to see out onto the horizon.

Steep, rocky terrain on the way up.

The Sunrise

Shortly after the mist settled and we could see out over the clouds the sun began to poke through.  It felt like looking out your airplane window but then you look down at your feet and realize you are standing still; most incredible sunrise I've ever seen.

Sunrise on Mt. Fuji at 5:02 am on August 27th.

We still had about 2 hours to go but this was a huge mental boost and we almost felt as though we could "coast" to the top.  The terrain continued to be steep and barren, but the climbing was less technical and a steadier pace resulted.  The sky continued to clear up though some lingering clouds remained above us.

The ascent was steep and barren.

The Top of Japan

The top of Mt. Fuji is the highest point in Japan, at 12,388' (3,776 m).  The volcano last erupted in 1707.

As we arrived the clouds were clearing,  a huge
 rainbow emanating from the crater.

On the top of Fuji was one last hut which we ducked into for some coffee and to trade high-fives with some fellow trekkers.  There were some clouds and mist still obscuring our view, but as it began to clear rainbows started to form.  There is actually a trail all the way around the rim of the volcano.  We didn't have the time or energy to fully circumnavigate, but we wanted to explore some and savor the moment.

As we started to traverse the crater the weather was clearing up and we came to the full realization that this wasn't just a mountain, its a volcano.  Fortunately for us its considered dormant.

Another issue we had been concerned with was the weather.  We were light on supplies and I bought a "pocket-jacket" (kind of like a poncho but a little heavier) for wind and rain protection.  Although the climbing season had officially ended it was still warm enough out for us.  While it was more humid and around 75 at the base of the mountain, it was probably around 40 and very dry at the top.  We were a little cool but dodged any bullets of extreme wind, rain, or snow blowing in.  When the wind would calm down it was actually quite nice sitting in the sun.

Some Japanese guy (and his buddy taking the picture) had been hiking along
side us for a few hours and wanted a picture at the top.  We were happy to oblige!
Public trash cans are not common in Japan and we knew going into Fuji that any trash we accumulated would have to be carried with us, yet another reason to pack light.  To my delight and amazement, there was absolutely no litter or trash on the mountain.  Even with hundreds of people traversing it every week and no trash cans.

I can't emphasize enough how glad I am that we packed light.  It would have been nice to have a little more clothing layers and food, but packing light (while hiking or on travel in general) makes staying mobile so much easier.  We passed hordes of people struggling to move (either up or down), carrying over 40 pounds of gear; shell jackets, gaiters, hiking boots with ankle support, trekking poles, and some even with hiking stoves and fuel!

A panorama of the inside of the Mt. Fuji crater.

The Descent

This was the hardest part in retrospect.  It took us about 7 hours total to reach the top, 3 the first day and 4 the 2nd day, but you need to hike the downhill portion all at once, which took about 5 hours.  While you aren't as winded descending, your legs start to burn as your quads and knees begin to tire.  There must have been over 70 monotonous switchbacks; all you can do is continue to count them down and trudge on.

Small CAT trucks with tank treads are used to transport gear up and down the mountain.

So we descended on, into the mist, back to vegetation, taking only short breaks at some rest huts.  Soon enough we made it back down, booked our bus tickets back to Tokyo, and ate a well deserved lunch in the 5th station restaurant.  I have no idea if it was really "good" food, but it was one of the best tasting meals of my life, hearty and hot!

Its up there!

Near the supply shops and souvenir stands, there was a small post office where you could send post-cards from, and they had a neat stamp where you could mark your passport.

While my entire trip to Japan was great, hiking Mount Fuji made it unforgettable.  Even if the rest of the trip was a wash, this made it worth it.  While I realize many before me have hiked Fuji, and many after me will, its more the personal sense of satisfaction that really stuck with me.  To travel so far from home and conquer something you never expected to see in person.

I still can't believe how well it went, considering our haphazard start.  Others we talked to who timed things perfectly ended up getting caught in rain and wind, and having their views obscured by clouds.  Since so many people attempt Fuji I might not have given it credit at first.  While it wasn't super difficult, but it certainly wasn't easy, and at high-altitudes even being "runner fit" isn't enough to make this a cake walk.