Running should feel natural

Running should feel natural

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Pine to Pain



That's my nickname for the Pine to Palm 100 miler, Hal Koerner's race showcasing the arid Siskiyou Mountains of Southern Oregon with over 20,000 feet of gain/loss.  Pine to Palm did not go as planned and I was disappointed to pull the plug at mile 59. It was a day of long, exposed climbs with record high temps in an area I was unfamiliar with.  I joined a few other VHTRC members for what would prove a daunting task to all.
 
VHTRC members at the race briefing.
When we started at 6:00 am from the staging area near Williams, the weather was cool and dry with some runners even wearing jackets; this made it all too easy to start out fast heading up Grayback Mountain.  Bee stings only a couple hours in added unnecessary stress and discomfort. After the first major Aid Station at mile 28 came the hottest climb of the day where things started to deteriorate. Mentally I dropped at mile 42, but continued to death march to aid stations at miles 50 and 52 trying to rally.  The only warm food available at this point was ramen noodles and hash browns. After trying somewhat successfully to resolve stomach, dehydration, and nausea issues (which included jumping in a lake), I was left with unrepairable muscle soreness from cramping throughout my body.  After over an hour at the Hanley Gap AS where I debated dropping I decided to hobble forward in a true act of self-loathing.  7 Miles later at Squaw Gap I had nothing left to give, physically or emotionally, and the choice was clear to drop.

The view off Grayback Mountain.

Excuses aside, I am already realizing some mistakes I made in the race that provide valuable lessons learned.  While the pace seemed comfortable at the time, in hindsight I disobeyed some of the tried and true strategies for 100 milers, namely to start slow and then slow down even more. I got caught up in a pack of fast guys, some attempting their first 100.  I should have been running my own race and remembered that the race doesn't start until the 100 km mark.  I would have been wise to pack more "real" food in my drop bags; orange slices and gels can only carry you so far.  Eating extra early on here would be extremely valuable, since trying to get food down in the heat of the day can be daunting.  Also important to remember is that muscle cramping is mostly the result of over exertion, not necessarily dehydration like was once thought.  This helps remind me that while it would be easier to blame the hot weather entirely, a more conservative start may have helped me maintain my composure.  Running point to point in an entirely new area presented a huge unknown.  Bottom line is that I went out too hard and couldn't get it done.

Pine to Palm is a challenging race on a tough course run point to point with a 58% finish rate according to the live tracking site.  The winner was Ryan Ghelfi of Ashland, in an unfathomable time of 18:28, 90 minutes ahead of 2nd place.  These mountains reminded me more of the rugged landscape of Northern California than the lush forests typically associated with the Pacific Northwest.  This amounted to long steep climbs, exposed ridge running, and eventual descents.  While the ASs were adequate, they are of no comparison to the mobile buffets that VHTRC has a habit of featuring back east.  The trails themselves were not very technical and I recall about half of it being on gravel roads (similar to MMTR).  Perhaps the last third features more singletrack.  All the turns were well marked, though a lack of confidence ribbons often had me questioning if I was headed in the correct direction.

Dry, arid conditions that reminded me of California.

I met plenty of other runners, some who finished strong and others that I commiserated with during our defeats.  The majority were from out west but there were plenty of east coasters and, in particular, a strong contingent of Tennesseans.  While the volunteers here were great, the biggest human element highlights of this race were the incredible generosity I experienced from spectators and other runners' crew members. At one point, a woman there to support her son jogged with me around Squaw Lake to try and help me clear my head.  After, her son's friend helped facilitate me jumping into said lake to try and cool off.  I met a gal from Nashville running who said her crew would be more than happy to feed me pizza, to which I stupidly declined.  Much later, after I dropped I was transported to a remote crew parking lot by Dutchman Peak to wait outside in windy, 40 degree weather.  A couple here who had been crewing for a friend that had already dropped were hanging out enjoying the party and offered me a spare sleeping bag to warm up in.  Then 20 minutes later proceeded to drive me the 90 minutes required back to my hotel in Medford, which they said was on their way home.

The race could work as a weekend trip, or be built into a longer vacation with potential side trips to the Oregon Coast, Portland, or northern California.  I opted to build in one extra day to side trip to the spectacular Crater Lake, about 2 very remote hours east from Ashland.

Wizard Island in Crater Lake from the Watchman lookout tower.

Pine to Palm was a humbling experience to say the least.  My first DNF in a goal race really hurt, but I'm trying to remind myself that by staying conservative I should have a lifetime of finishes to look forward to.  Knowing these lessons and the logistics of the area will do me well when I eventually return to finish what I started.

​Full race information and maps are on the Pine to Palm website.

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Old Dominion Endurance Run

All things considered, my running of the 38th annual Old Dominion 100 mile endurance run went splendidly.  After a winter sabbatical, spring training went great with several shorter races leading up to June.  Even after an extremely abbreviated night of sleep I felt like I had fresh legs at the start line.  The weather was typical of Virginia in early June; humid with highs in the 80s and the potential for showers.  Thats what you sign up for so there is no reason to complain.

Race: Old Dominion
Date: June 3rd, 2016
Finish Time: 22 hours, 19 minutes
Distance: 100 miles
Gain/loss: 14,000 ft


The course kept me in touch with my surroundings.  The combinations of gravel roads, hiking trails, and paved portions made me feel as though I was traversing all the human activity in Fort Valley and the Massanutten Mountains.  While some locals aren't sure what to think of Ultra-Runners at other races I've participated in, at Old Dominion I received plenty of words of encouragement from on-lookers.  One fellow cruising by in a truck even offered me a ride up the climb to Woodstock Tower.  I replied that it was a tempting offer but one I would have to pass up!  Plenty of wildlife was out as well.  I heard reports of a bear spotting; deer and bunny rabbits criss-crossed the trails and turtles came out in the late afternoon hours.  Snakes were the main topic of conversation among runners though.  I saw 3 huge rattlesnakes, one of which was coiled with its tail rattling away, a clear message to keep your distance.  This was also interesting to me since that while I realized there are Rattlers on the east coast, Copperheads and Cottonmouths tend to be more common in Virginia when it comes to poisonous snakes.

The whole race was tough; at no point did I feel great, however I never felt remotely close to quitting either.  Instead I just buzzed along at a steady pace, picking away at the course as the day waned.  I hit my lowest point around the middle of the race before the mountain top aid station.  I was hungry and tired, and having difficulty drinking enough fluids to off-set my sweat rate while at the same time not being able to stomach much food.  Somehow at the Edinburgh Gap and Little Fort aid stations I was able choke down enough calories which, combined with some cloud cover and decreasing temperatures, gave me a 2nd wind to push into the last 1/3 of the course.

One last test came almost 94 miles into the race.  Coming down off the last climb from Woodstock tower, during the dark and rainy night, I somehow strayed left on the road instead of veering to the right.  This looked like the course but as the road turned to gravel I realized something wasn't right.  Staying calm is truly key in this instances.  After a brief freak-out I stopped, consulted my map, and determined I needed to back track.  A local was driving home and stopped to direct me back to the last junction if I wanted to reach the finish in Woodstock.  It seemed like an eternity but in hindsight I only burned about a mile or 12 minutes.  The adrenaline rush of missing a turn gave me some fresh legs to make some of that time up on the way back.  I was just happy to be back and going the right direction!

"Flying" into the finish at 2:19 am Sunday.
Old Dominion presents a unique challenge, to cover 100 miles in one day.  Basically, you need to run, a lot.  While this may sound natural to Ultra-Runners, more mountainous courses give you plenty of chances to walk or hike up the hills.  Anytime the terrain is fairly flat or downhill you need to be running, anything less is just wasting time.  When the goal is to cover 100 miles in 24 hours you don't have time to waste.  There is a 28 hour cut-off for official finishers which is already challenging, and add to that the pressure of sub-24 for a belt buckle.  While there are plenty of runable sections, the course is anything but flat.  14 significant climbs, each with a quad busting downhill.

This race is classic Ultra-Running.  Paper mail-in applications, no sponsors, no live-tracking, no mercy, and certainly no bullshit.  The finish proved equally underwhelming; 1 person recording finish times, and 3 or 4 other supporters hanging out.  That was it.  Its low key and everyone involved knows what they are doing.  The race directors have admirably kept it this way for almost 40 years and I hope it continues.

Race HQ at the Shenandoah fairgrounds.
This is the oldest 100 miler on the east coast and the 2nd oldest in the country.  Like its western counterpart, this originated from a long distance horse ride.  Six years after the iconic Western States run began, the OD100 race directors wanted to give east coasters a chance to run 100 miles through rugged Virginia trails.

The Old Dominion endurance run, still a reason to get strong since 1979.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

My Favorite IPAs


India Pale Ales.  A finer class of beers that demands a developed palette.  Of British origin, legend has it these pale ales were brewed specifically to survive the long journey to the new world, once thought to be India, and thus the name was born.  The use of hops in beer is almost as complex as the manipulation of pinot noir grapes for red wines. Too hoppy and it may leave a bitter taste, not enough can result in a bland, "chug-worthy" beer.  I haven't always loved IPAs.  I used to prefer porters, lagers, and pale ales.  But those ever intoxicating hops grew on me.  Now many of my old favorites just seem to be lacking something.  IPAs are all the craze now in American craft brewing, and with good reason.

I decided to give a run down of my absolute favorites in this diverse category.

I had a few caveats for my list: they needed to be IPAs, plain and simple.  There are some great Pale Ales with a hoppy flavor, but they aren't IPAs.  Same goes for tasty Belgian quads or triples.  I excluded double or triple IPAs, often called "imperial" IPAs.  I was however fine to include sub-categories like Rye, Red, or Black IPAs, but none of them made it into my list since I've just never really tasted one that was overly delicious.  I wanted to make sure these are readily available, so I excluded brews in limited distribution or that may not even be bottled.  I know we've all heard a pretentious story about the "best beer ever", only to hear it doesn't leave the 10 mile radius where its brewed.

These are some of my tastiest go-tos along with a few others that barely missed the list.

Sierra Nevada Tropical IPA - The slight bitterness is soon overtaken but fruit notes of mango, orange and pineapple.  Fresh and drinkable with a dry finish.  Sierra Nevada's "Beer Camp" series represents a collaboration between their brewery and several smaller gigs.  While this may be a limited release they would be crazy not to make it a regular.

Stone IPA - Stone knows what they are doing with IPAs.  Their Delicious and Go-to IPAs are great options as well, but I still prefer the original.  This is what a West Coast IPA should taste like.  Some floral and piney notes compliment this crisp IPA.

Firestone Easy Jack IPA - A wonderfully easy to drink IPA.  I'm impressed with how much taste comes out of only a 4.5% alcohol by volume brew.  This also makes it a great option to drink multiples of throughout the day.  Not overwhelmingly hoppy and features some tropical notes.

Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA - a citrusey, hopped out brew with hints of spices throughout.  Its still an IPA so it isn't overly sweet on the fruit and its on the less bitter end of the spectrum.  Drink it ice cold at a hot summer tailgate!

Smuttynose Finest Kind IPA - a full bodied, classical American IPA.  This one isn't light on the hops so if you are still growing accustomed to hop-laden IPAs you may want to steer clear until you develop a pallet.  Once you do, pull up a chair, sit back and relax while sipping on this one.

Honorable Mentions: Stone Delicious IPADogfish Head 60 minute IPA,  Flying Dog Easy IPA

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Purity Ring

It happens every Labor Day Weekend in Northern Virginia.  Few have heard of it.  Fewer have completed it.  In fact there are now 157 unique members who have completed it.  Entry is free and the winner only gets bragging rights.  There is no corporate sponsorship, no shiny medals or belt buckles, and no mercy on the course.  Just a dedicated community of runners and supporters.  Its 71 miles of steep, rugged trails through Virginia's Massanutten Mountains.  "The Ring"  encapsulated the quintessential Ultra experience to me.

The 48 starters of the 2015 edition of The Ring.  At least I'm not the only crazy person.  Photo courtesy VHTRC.

I was having a great season of running leading up to the Ring.  Coming off a strong spring, a successful 100 miler in early summer, and several 50ks in August had me in shape and confident.  This was important because The Ring is not your typical fat-ass event and not to be taken lightly.  Some people kind of pencil it in as training for other events but I wisely did not have anything major scheduled for almost 2 months after.

I spent the night in nearby Front Royal to try and get as much sleep as possible.  The Ring starts promptly at 7:00 a.m. from the Signal Knob Parking lot where the runners circle up, provide our entry fee in the form of aid station supplies, and make last minute preparations.  Though I always plan to start out slow, I started out even slower than I would have liked getting caught behind a train of runners.  Coming up the first climb over the Elizabeth Furnace recreation area things spaced out a bit but there was still plenty of group conversation.  This was the first of many steep, rocky climbs.  I chatted with  a nice fellow from Ohio.  He said he had DNFed the Ring previously, and was just trying to get ahead of the clock and then just "hang on" after the half-way mark.  I suggested a more conservative strategy this time which hopefully he took to heart.

As I started to space out from some of the runners I caught up with my good friend Andrew Simpson.  He has been a good training partner for years now and we more or less agreed to run most of the daytime portion of the race together.

Early on, looking east at the twisting Shenandoah river with the
Shenandoah  mountains in view. Photo courtesy Tammy Wonning.
The first sections of the Ring are serious business.  The aid stations are few and far between early on, the first one occurring 13 miles in and only featuring fluids.  The next one was another 12 miles away.  I filled up my 1.5 liter reservoir but neglected to fill up my 2 soft flasks, an oversight I would later regret.  Things were hot and humid at this point and I was sucking down my fluids.  The last thing you want to do in any Ultra, especially at the Ring, is get behind in your hydration early on.  I ran out of fluids with about 4 more miles until aid, but kept the pace conservative and made it in no problem.  I enthusiastically filled up all my provisions at the Roosevelt AS as energetic volunteers fed me warm food.

Participants are allowed 1 sturdy drop-bag which is carted around the course to most of the aid stations.  I stored the typical supplies in mine, some of which would not be needed: sunscreen, bug spray, gels, nutrition bars, spare clothing, batteries, a headlamp, and bodyglide.  I heard stories about terrible bugs along the trail including relentless horseflies so I packed a safari hat with bug netting to protect my face and neck; to my delight it was not needed.

Passing Duncan Knob we had some runable, fairly flat sections, before the gradual ascent up Middle Mountain.  The climbs here weren't too tough, but it was the warmest part of the day and we were on a jeep trail that let plenty of sunlight in.  Here I was feeling hot and walking continued to tempt me.  My friend Andrew was really helpful here, pulling me along while the day wasn't even half done.

Navigating The Ring sounds straightforward but it can be anything but.  "Stay on Orange" is all you need to know; the trail is one massive loop that utilizes orange tree blazes.  However, many of the blazes are warn off, hard to differentiate from other red or yellow trails in the area, and do not always adhere to the typical double markings for turns.  You would be wise to carry a map & compass, approaching every intersection ready for a critical decision.  We had a few spots that required a little exploring of potential options before we could be confident we were indeed on orange.

This pretty much sums up the terrain.  Rocks, rock, and more rocks.  Navigate however you see fit.
The toughest challenge of the day came about 50 kilometers into the Ring.  The steep hike up to Crisman Hollow  was almost 1,000 feet in 3/4 of a mile.  It was tough to even keep hiking at a constant pace.  I was sweating bullets during the typical Virginia humidity, and ran out of fluids about half-way up.  I knew a major aid station was coming so I just tried to keep a clear head.

The Crisman Hollow aid station came at a critical time for me.  I was hungry, thirsty, and in dire need of  a break.  We ran into the eventual women's winner, my friend and training partner Angela Russel.  She departed shortly after our arrival.  Andrew also left before I did, feeling strong as ever.  I had a pacer waiting for me at mile 40 and welcomed a little alone time.  The next section was not very significant, just more ups and downs on the rocky trails of the Massanutten Mountains.

I had told my pacer, Rick Bennet, to expect me around 5:30 p.m. with a best case scenario of five sharp and a worst case scenario of around 7:00 p.m.  To my surprise and enjoyment I arrived at a timely quarter after five.  I hate having a pacer or crew member wait around for hours just due to poor judgement on the part of their runner so hopefully hitting the nail on the head time-wise will encourage him to pace me again in the future.

After meeting Rick at Edinburg Gap and refueling we headed off.  Still with plenty of light but a bit cooler out now in the evening hours.  I really had no idea of my current placing, I think I was in the top 10 and only had one female in front of me; most entrants would agree that the goal at the Ring is just to finish.  I was cautiously optimistic heading on.


Looking out over Fort Valley as we close in on Sunset.
Moving along we were now on one of the rockiest sections of the Ring, and thats really saying something in the Massanuttens.  Some of the trail just went straight though moss-covered rock gardens, prohibiting running and leading to the loss of at least a couple more toenails.  There were even times where all you can do is  stop, look at the "trail" in front of you and ask yourself what in the world are you doing out here.  While the footing was poor my spirits were higher now; it was beginning to cool off and we were treated to a gorgeous sunset off to the west.

Sometimes you just have to stop, collect
yourself, and figure out your next steps.
When we came into the Edinburg Gap AS at mile 48 the last ambient light of the day was fading fast.  I even remember catching a bit of a chill here.  After refueling we turned on our headlamps and headed on to the next climb up Short Mountain, which at the time seemed anything but.  I started to get pretty crabby here and credit Rick with staying cool.  I asked him to check our mileage on his GPS watch probably every 10 minutes, and had him verify whether or not I was hallucinating several times.  I had spotted a hand-written note on the ground that looked meant for a runner, and he reassured me that it was in fact "real".

When I am feeling really down in a race I just try to tell myself that its better to feel bad now and good later.  With almost 20 miles to go I really hoped it was true today.  Short Mountain finally topped out and we had some more ridge running before the next descent down to Woodstock.

The Woodstock Aid Station was pivotal.  To my surprise several of my good friends were all huddling up here.  Enrique, Misha, Eryn, and Snipes were all manning this spot.  Most of the day I had been eating cold or packaged food, but the foods at this stop were a Godsend; hot miso soup, chocolate cake, and avocado burritos were on the menu here.  Enough dirt and moisture had accumulated in my socks that I decided to change.  While it can be a waste of time it most certainly was not here.  Re-energized finally, I headed back out into the woods for one last major climb and descent toward Powells Fort.

I don't really remember much about this section, other than that I was finally feeling better in the cooler night air and was looking forward to the last section.  Not just for getting to finish, but I have run and hiked the Signal Knob area many times and its nice to be on familiar terrain.

Its not a real Ultra without night running!
Now about 60 miles in, we exited the trail onto the gravel Boyer Road and soon blasted into the Powells Fort Aid Station which featured more warm food.  I even chugged a starbucks doubleshot coffee drink, a staple of mine for tired moments in races.  I didn't know who was ahead of me but I knew I had a realistic shot of breaking 20 hours which was my stretch goal for the day.  However, this was only if I hauled ass the rest of the way.  Leaving Powells Fort I really had some legs on me all of a sudden so I got moving on the gravel road section.  Finally running "fast" for a change fueled my adrenaline rush.  Heading north on Boyers Road the trail takes a slight detour back onto single track trails and then rejoins the road to climb up to the Signal Knob over-look.  I spotted 2 runners and was able to pass them naturally on the uphill.

At the top of this hill there is a small detour to the Signal Knob overlook, and since its an orange marked part of the course you need to follow the trail out there.  Its an honor system section that would be easy to skip but I'm sure no one wants to cheat themselves.  Out of weird Ultra paranoia I still checked back over my shoulder to make sure the 2 runners behind me were going out there.

The traverse from Signal Knob to Menaka Peak and on to Richardson Knob is extremely rocky and slow going.  I didn't even mind this, being so close to the finish, and I realized from hiking in the area so many times that the last 2 miles would be a runable downhill.  Leaving the rockiest parts I came upon my friend Andrew from earlier in the day.  I enthusiastically suggested we all band together and push the last couple miles in but his legs were shot and he was just trying to get down the mountain.  I trudged on, catching an edge a few times that made me wisely back off the pace.  Less than a mile to go!

My pacer and I - Finally a reason to smile.
Finally, like an oasis in a pitch black forest came the finish.  A race official checked his watch to record my finish time.  Another volunteer handed us some warm food.  Just like that, it was over.  There were a couple of "prizes" to be had.  An oval "71" car sticker, denoting the length of the Ring in miles, and a tiny pin for first time Ring finishers proclaiming that "I peed on the electric fence".

I was very pleased to discover that I had come in 6th of the original 48 starters, and 27 eventual finishers in roughly 19 and a half hours.  Angela Russell had won the women's field 25 minutes ahead of me, being so close to the women's winner felt awesome.  The men's winner, Danny Mowers, came in almost 5 hours before me with an inhuman performance.  In an act of true Ultra class, Danny was still hanging out at the finish when I came in.  Andrew came in a few minutes behind me where we could all commiserate.  All that was left was to eat some food and pass out in our cars until daylight.  I don't think I've ever been that sore and incoherent the day following a race, not even a 100 miler.  However, that didn't stop myself and a few other runners and volunteers from visiting a beer garden in nearby Washington D.C. that evening, drowning our sorrows with 1-liter mugs of German brews.

The Ring is odd.  Bottom line is that its miserable, but people keep coming back for it.  Finishing the Ring (clockwise direction) is the only way to be eligible to run the Reverse Ring, the same trail run counterclockwise every February.  Will I be running the Reverse and gaining true membership to the "Fellowship of the Ring"? You bet.  But not until I forget about the standard edition.

Race: The Ring
Date: Sept. 5th, 2015
Finish Time: 19 hours 34 minutes
Distance: 71 miles
Gain/loss: 15,600 ft


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Watch these for Wanderlust!

Is running related to travel? Not inherently, but they both instill similar emotions.  The need to overcome obstacles, to do something that feels like a new experience to you, and to get out and see things you never thought possible.  Its your trip, your race, your adventure.  You may feel like if you just do one more big race, or travel to one more destination, you will feel complete; but often upon returning you are even hungrier for more.

"Wanderlust" has been kind of a buzzword lately, and essentially just means that you have a strong desire to travel.  I think running addicts have something similar.

The following 10 unordered movies are tops on my list in terms of giving me that urge to go out and explore.

Lost in Translation

A lonely, aging movie star named Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and a conflicted newlywed, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), meet in Tokyo. Bob is there to film a Japanese whiskey commercial; Charlotte is accompanying her celebrity-photographer husband. Strangers in a foreign land, the two form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in a hotel bar.

7 Years in Tibet

The true story of Heinrich Harrer (played by Brad Pitt), an egocentric Austrian mountain climber who became friends with the Dalai Lama at the time of China's takeover of Tibet.  After a failed mountain climbing attempt and a brief stint in a British Indian POW camp, he gradually learns selflessness from the young Dalai Lama.

Into the Wild

After graduating from Emory University, northern Virginia native Christopher McCandless abandons his possessions, gives his entire $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhikes to Alaska to live in the wilderness. Along the way, Christopher encounters a series of characters that shape his life.

The Motorcycle Diaries

On a break before his last semester of medical school, Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Gael García Bernal) travels with his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) from Brazil to Peru by motorcycle. The two men soon witness the great disparities in South America, encountering poor peasants and observing the exploitation of labor by wealthy industrialists.

Y Tu Mamá También

The lives of Julio and Tenoch, like those of 17-year old boys everywhere, are ruled by raging hormones, intense friendships, and a headlong rush into adulthood. Over the course of a summer, the two best friends, while living out a carefree cross-country escapade with a gorgeous older woman, also find connection with each other, themselves and the world around them.

Up in the Air

With a job traveling around the country firing people, Ryan Bingham enjoys his life living out of a suitcase, but finds that lifestyle threatened by the presence of a new hire and a potential love interest.  He soon begins to realize that a transient lifestyle may not be as rewarding as it had once appeared.

In Bruges

After a difficult job in London, a 2 person hit-man team is ordered by their boss Harry to cool their heels in Bruges, Belgium. Very much out of their comfort zones, the men find themselves drawn into increasingly dangerous entanglements.  Soon their perspectives on life and death are violently skewed in this dark comedy.

Wild

Based on the 2012 memoir by American author Cheryl Strayed, describing her 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 as a journey of self-discovery.  We experience the natural beauty and challenges of her journey, along with memories of her past life.


Almost Famous

Set in the 70s, its the coming of age story of 15 year old William, a fan of rock music inspired to write for Rolling Stone. When his love of music lands him an assignment from the famous magazine to interview the [fictional] band "Stillwater", William embarks on an eye-opening journey with the band's tour, despite the objections of his protective mother.


The Beach

Twenty-something Richard travels to Thailand and finds himself in possession of a strange map. Rumors state that it leads to a solitary beach paradise, a tropical bliss - excited and intrigued, he sets out to find it. He is joined by 2 fellow travelers on an adventure to "The Beach," a mystical paradise. However, this paradise is less than perfect.

Descriptions paraphrased partly from IMDB.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Big Horn 100 Miler: Race Recap

The Big Horn "wild and scenic" 100 mile trail run.  This was the one.  If there was ever a goal race, a travel race, an experience: this was it.

Race: Big Horn 100 miler
Location: Dayton, Wyoming (Big Horn Mountains)
Date: June 19-20, 2015
Gain/Loss: 18,300 ft
Altitude: 4,000 ft to 9,000 ft
Time: 30:17:22

When you finish a marathon  you get a medal.  When you
finish 100 miles you get a belt buckle!

Intro

Though the race didn't start until Friday, we flew into Billings, Montana Wednesday night and drove down to Sheridan, Wyoming with some minor sightseeing along the way.  This was not only a requirement, since packet pickup and drop bag checking was Thursday afternoon, but served as a great buffer before the race to get adjusted to the local area.  In hindsight, I think getting not only 1, but 2 solid nights of sleep before the race was a huge helper.  I don't really recall being extremely sleepy at any point during the race.

Most of the cities out there are pretty abbreviated, but Sheridan did have a cute main street strip with a local festival going on.  There were a few options for western looking saloons and bars that I was eager to explore, however I wisely held off with the 100 miler looming.  The pasta dine-in on Thursday night gave us a great chance to catch up with the many other VA/DC/MD runners who made the trek out.  The Virginia Happy Trails Running Club coordinates an unofficial "travel race" every year; Big Horn was this year's and club members were out in full force.  It was scenic, different, and offered 18, 32, 52 and 100 mile distances.

A large group of runners representing the VA/DC/MD area from VHTRC.

After dinner was over I was really just anxious to get the race started.  I had no problem going to sleep on time and rising refreshed before heading to finish area in Dayton for the pre-race briefing.  We then caravaned to the race start, 5 miles deeper into the Tongue River Canyon where the first of many iconic rock formations awaited us.

I have pretty specific preferences as far as what equipment and fuel I use during a race, but overall its pretty varied from runner to runner.  While a common reaction to heat and extreme sun is to strip down, at a a certain point it is wiser to cover back up, namely with white or light colored clothing.  The sun can zap your energy levels, burn your skin, and suck out moisture.  Staying hydrated and cool is critical.  Dry air and light wind can fool you into thinking you aren't overheating, but once the wind stops you realize how intense the sun really is.  I wore a white tech T (moisture whicking shirt), a dorky looking white hat with ear and neck cover (to keep the sun off - also wore sunglasses), and I even used white arm sleeves for this race.  Being fare skinned and with blue eyes requires a little extra protection.  These arm sleeves are popular with cyclists doing day long rides to keep the sun off their arms and they worked great.  If you dip them in water and keep them wet they actually have a cooling affect on your arms in dry conditions.  I left my legs bare but put plenty of sunscreen on to all exposed areas, reapplying through the day.  Some people headed out with tank tops or even shirtless (assuming they would cover up later in the race), but I couldn't imagine being so exposed even for an hour.

I run with a Salomon hydration vest to refuel and carry some necessities.  The bladder holds 1.5 liters of water and I was refueling at every aid station.  Some people were getting by with just a hand bottle but I simply drink too much to make that work.  In my pack I also carry a lightweight shell jacket and knit hat in case the weather abruptly turns afoul.  In terms of food, I like to bring a few bars (Lara-bars and Cliff bars), a couple energy gels (like Gu), and some salt tablets to keep my salt and electrolyte levels up (S!Caps are pretty standard with ultra runners).  You want to at least attempt to eat and drink enough that you never really get to a point of being severely thirsty or hungry.  While gels and bars won't really sustain you the whole race, the aid stations have "real" food available.  I also have some spare toilet paper (just in case), chapstick, and my cell phone (mostly for picture taking, but also doubles as a music player).

Start to Dry Fork (0 - 13.4 miles)

Just before the start.
The starting line to the 100 miler was simple, just a few hundred runners competing for what little shade was available before saying goodbye to the many supporters who were also there.  The gun went off at 11:00am, as we were approaching the hottest part of the day.  This was a unique start time; most races tend to start early in the morning but I was happy with the 11:00am start as it facilitated another full night of sleep.

A few of my friends of similar abilities laid out a plan to loosely stay together at least for the first 1/3 of the race.  While the goal of a pace group in a road marathon may be to keep everyone in check and running fast enough, its quite the opposite in an Ultra.  Here we were trying to stay honest in going out slowly enough.  Going out too fast, even just slightly, in a race this long can result in significant fatigue later in the race.  That fatigue can set in as early as 25 miles, after the half-way mark, or even in the closing 20 miles of the race; not something I wanted to experience.  The heat, sun, and exposure only compounded the need to take it easy and take it plenty of fluids.

Running through the Tongue
River Canyon.
As we got started I was immediately struck by the landscape.  Full of rock formations and high country open spaces I knew I wasn't running in Virginia anymore.  We had some rolling hills in the canyon before starting some major climbs to get up into some alpine meadows.  Now the real mountains were coming into view.  We continued up and down a mix of single track trails and dirt roads, passing some minor aid stations before we reached the first major aid station, Dry Fork.  The minor aid stations typically offer water, an electrolyte drink (like gatorade), and some snacks; one would be wise to be eating, drinking, and refilling your pack at every chance, especially during the heat of the day.  The major aid stations were almost like little villages, with volunteers running around tending to the food & drink, race officials checking on your bib number and time, supporters offering up words of advice, and even medical personnel to keep an eye on anything out of the ordinary.

Dry Fork to Footbridge (13.4 - 30 mi)

Heading up some of the many hills.
For the Dry Fork aid station, as with any aid station, I had a plan ahead of time.  This consists of getting in and out as fast as possible, while taking the time to get everything I needed.  Basically, you don't want to waste any time, but you don't want to skip anything either.  Refill your pack, eat some real food, reapply sunscreen, put on some petroleum jelly if you are worried about chaffing, take a few sips of a caffeinated drink (coffee or pepsi for a quick boost) and grab some more food to go.  5-10 minutes should be sufficient for most aid stations.

I was greeted by my wife and several other friends and well-wishers. This early in the game its mostly moral support but they were also helpful in helping us refill and refuel.

As we labored on the group started to spread out a bit.  I was getting tired, thirsty, and hot, with some minor stomach distress around 20 miles in.  Its kind of humiliating to be feeling so fatigued so early in a race, but you just have to stay calm, keep going through the motions, and trust in your training and preparation.  After running in and out of some forested spots, we started descending down a huge ridge that would eventually lead to the next major aid station.  There were a few muddy spots, but nothing severe; after hearing about the "shoe sucking mud" at Big Horn, I figured those were still to come.  Descending the ridge we were treated to views of the rocky and rapid Little Big Horn river far below us. Coming down this section we were approaching dusk, a light wind prevailed, and the temperature had dropped a bit which was a welcome change.

Arriving at the Footbridge AS I had several realizations: first,  since we were now 33 miles in and sufficiently warmed up, we were getting into the "meat" of the race; second, that, while I wasn't feeling great, I felt decent and was coming out of my earlier funk.  It hit me that I was really out there, enacting my plan for the better part of the last 6 months, in a remote area of Wyoming.  Lastly, I realized that this is where the planning and prep would either pay off or go awry.  I had a drop bag packed here with spare shoes and socks, a headlamp for night running, and an extra layer of clothes (among other minor supplies).  I opted not to change shoes and save them for the way back down.  After refueling here I headed up the mountain now solo, for an intimidating 18 mile climb to the turnaround at the Jaws Trailhead.  The solo running did quickly yield to friendly conversation with some fellow runners, so I never really felt "alone".
You could see for miles!

Footbridge to Jaws to Footbridge (30 - 48 - 66 mi)

Probably about 6 or 7 miles into this climb (40 miles total in) I experienced probably my lowest point of the day.  It was still light out but approaching 8:00pm.  My head just wasn't in it and I was feeling very fatigued.  As a "flat-lander" living at sea level, I was extremely concerned that the high-altitude was finally getting to me as we approached 7,500 feet above sea level.  I slowed down, even sat down for a bit to gather myself, eating a Lara-bar and drinking some water.  Though I try not to take NSAID pills (Non Steroidal Anti-Inflamatory Drugs), I gave in and took an Advil.  I had serious thoughts about quitting at the turn-a-round, but remembering the advice of a good friend and fellow ultra-runner I promised not to really decide anything until I got to the next aid station.

Nightfall begins.  The moon was only out briefly before
giving way to a star filled sky.
I'll never know the true cause of my newfound powersource, but I started coming out of my funk and actually feeling better than I had felt all day.  By now it was almost dark and a cool 50 degrees.  We were also hitting some more sections of mud, but I figured it could be much worse had it been raining recently and it wasn't a  big issue to tiptoe around (or through) it.  By 9pm I was debating the use of a headlamp, and by 10pm I gave in.  While this section was a steady climb, many parts weren't steep or were even flat enough to run so I was keeping up a decent pace.  We crossed a few sections of raging river tributaries via ad hoc footbridges, key sections to pay extra attention to.

By now it was completely dark.  It may sound intimidating to run all night, but I have grown to enjoy it.  Staying cool was no longer an issue, and we dodged a severe weather bullet.  Apparently on any given day there is a 50% chance for Thunderstorms on the mountain, a scenario I was not looking forward to.  However, tonight the skies cleared up and we were treated to an impressive array of stars.  I passed a few more of the minor aid stations restocking and drinking regularly.  A friend of mine was having some stomach issues at one of them, but he is a far more experienced ultra-runner than I am so I knew he would come out of it.

In the "Jaws" aid station at the turn-around, looking fairly
strong, all things considered.
Now I did something I almost never do: listen to music while I run.  I like to carry earbuds as a "break in case of emergency" backup.  It wasn't imperative, but I was starting to get a little bored and with over 6 more hours of night running to go I queued up an Ultra-Running mix of songs I had put together back home.  It was a big aid to pass the time and added a very enjoyable aspect to the night running.  I also spotted a runner with a pacer who was muling for them, as in having their pacer carry their pack and give them supplies along the way!  This is not allowed, and while I wouldn't turn someone in to race officials for such a minor infraction, I didn't hesitate to make a snide comment: "Hey, while your at it can you carry my stuff too?"

At this point some of the lead runners were passing me on their way back down the mountain.  At least I knew I was getting close to the turn-a-round aid station at the Jaws trailhead.  They had up a big tent, complete with heat, chairs, and even cots inside!  This could be easy to get trapped in with the comforts of home.  I tried to stick to my typical plan.  I think I spent close to 30 minutes here, longer than I like, but this was a major aid station and at a crucial point in the race so it was time well spent.  I ran into the girlfriend of a buddy of mine, who provided some words of encouragement especially when stating something to the affect that I "did not look terrible" and that I was a little ahead of my very conservative schedule.  Close to 1:00am I headed back out into the night, but now with a full stomach, dry socks, an extra layer of clothes, and an insanely bright headlamp.

The way back down wasn't very memorable, just some fairly steady running and walking back down the mountain.  I realized why they call it "shoe sucking mud" at some point too.  As I tip-toed through a big water bog I mistepped into a squishy mud pit and lost a shoe!  My next step was in grass and I was able take a knee, fish it out and put it back on.  Around 60 miles in the light of the day was starting to creep over the horizon.  It was probably around 5:00am when it was safe to turn off my headlamp.  This is another big mental boost.

First glimpse of daylight.  The ground still appeared dark though.































I had forgotten how rocky the course was in spots.  Towards the bottom it got flatter but rock croppings still necessitated walking.  I traded places several times with some other runners and their pacers, but I eventually pulled away before we would get back to the Footbridge AS.  This aid station is often the most important in a run of this length, about 2/3 through the race.

Footbridge to Dry Fork (66 - 82.5 mi)

A view of the Little Big Horn River, near the Foot Bridge
Aid Station.  The water is flowing toward you.
This was another big stop, but well worth it.  Your preparation here can set you up for success or failure in the rest of the race.  I now got out my spare pair of shoes and socks I had in my drop bag along with the other usual supplies.  I "watered" my feet and dried them off, reapplied some petroleum jelly (to prevent blisters), and put on the new shoes.  That felt extremely nice!  I was even treated to a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich here.  Since it was now morning hours the presence of breakfast foods helps you kind of mentally reset to the next day, despite staying up all night.  Right out of Footbridge AS we had a massive climb to get up out of the Little Bighorn Canyon.  Comradery was provided by several other suffering runners around me.  This was a long hike, and even as it leveled out I felt the need to speed walk some portions.  The trail was very thin, a literal single-track, that caused for some precarious footing.

I continued refilling and reapplying sunscreen at the intermediate aid stations along the trail.  These are a logistical challenge for the volunteers to stock, as they would typically require the supplies to be brought in on horseback!  Just goes to show how dedicated the volunteers and race supporters are.  

Marveling once again in my surroundings I took another quick stop to take some pictures.  Things just kept going at a fairly steady pace until the Dry Fork aid station was within sight.  This was a bit of a tease, as you could see it from over 2 miles away!

Selfie-break while running up on one of the ridges.

Dry Fork to Lower Sheep Creek (82.5 - 92.5 mi)

At the Dry Fork Aid Station I was again greeted by some familiar faces, but this time was all business.  Restocking, eating and drinking were high priorities.  My friends were of great help in
Wide open, alpine spaces high up.
keeping me calm and on track.  Some runners use hiking poles in more mountainous races (like Big Horn), to assist with the steep ascents and even to help relieve some sore quads on the downhills.  I decided to make them optional, but I ended up picking them up here.  Though they were annoying to carry at times they were worth having to help me with the uphills.

I felt fatigued, both mentally and physically, but setting out with less than 20 miles to go I knew I could basically speedwalk my way to a finisher belt buckle and that alone was a boost.  Back to some rolling hills and tedious single track before one last monster climb up what felt like a 40% incline to the green meadows.  One of the toughest parts of the race for me was in the final descent down to the Tongue River Canyon.  Attempting to tip-toe down a steep grade when my quads were fatigued was a huge challenge.  I couldn't run for fear of falling or hurting something, so I again utilized my poles to trek down.

Now that most of the descending was over with the hiking poles would soon become a nuisance.  After buddying up to someone's pacer I was able to leave the poles at an aid station and the pacer knew someone there with a car who was able to transport them to the finish.  This made running on flatter surfaces much easier.

My GPS watch, a Suunto Ambit 2 had worked great, all things considered, but since it only pings a satellite once per minute and then connects the lines the result is a slight under reporting of distance.  I think by now I was like 3 miles under the true distance, which kind of played head games with me; "the race says its only 7 miles to go by my watch hasn't hit 90 yet?". All those little tangents drawn over curved paths add up.  No watch can last 30+ hours with constant pinging (the most accurate measure), so this is a good compromise.  To my amazement I still had like 20% battery life left!  Some runners actually recharge their watches during the race with portable USB power sources, but this sounded like a big hassle.  Its really nice to have some gauge on how far you ran in the last hour or so, and I love being able to go back after a run and look at my route on a map.

Lower Sheep Creek to Finish in Dayton (92.5 - 100 mi)

It just doesn't get any easier.  We were now back into the heat of the canyon in the hottest part of the day, near where the start was, and getting close enough that you could almost taste it.  Almost, since it would still be a couple more hours.  I refueled in the lower sheep creek aid station and, tempted by a sub 30 hour finish, got a little energy boost that let me run up and down some rolling hills.  Once we got back to the original starting line there was an aid station and 5 miles of gravel roads to go.  I blew through this one just getting a drink since my pack was still mostly full.  This was unwise in hindsight as those last 5 miles were on a completely exposed road, in direct sun, during the heat of the day.  I recalled my friend Natalie shouting "Erik, put some ice in your hat!"; she was running the 50 miler and we had been trading spots the last hour or so.

Fortunately, once I got down the road a bit some volunteers were riding around on bicycles handing out ice-pops.  I ate 2 which cooled me down and I was able to continue slow jogging toward the finish.  Another tiny aid station that just had water was 2 miles from the finish. I recall seeing a runner about 400 meters behind me who appeared to keep gaining on me.  I was convinced she was running the 100 and I didn't want to lose a position this late in the race, so this was good motivation to keep up the pace.  It turned out she was doing a shorter distance but it still got me moving!  As I entered Dayton and closed in on the finish park I was greeted by some enthusiastic friends along with my wife; I called her over and grabbed her hand to run in the last 200 meters with me for a photo finish! 

Done!  Though I was flirting with a sub 30 hour finish I was very happy to come in at 30 hours and 17 minutes, especially on a day when so many people had issues (heat, altitude, stomach, etc.) that affected their performance.  I briefly dipped my legs in the cold creek flowing next to the park to reduce some of the inflammation in my legs and also clean off the dirt.  I collected my Big Horn finisher blanket and enjoyed my post race meal.  The belt buckles, finisher jackets, and awards were presented the following morning (along with free breakfast) in downtown Sheridan, a slightly larger town in Wyoming where most people were staying.  Once back at our hotel I fell asleep at 8pm and slept harder than ever!

Side Notes:

  • The scenery at Big Horn was incredible, anytime I needed motivation all I had to do was take a look around.  At night (when you couldn't see anything) I would just switch off my headlamp and gaze at the stars.
  • The aid stations and volunteers were legendary.  The best food, best volunteers, best logistics I've ever seen at a race by far.  It was almost too easy: as soon as you roll into an aid station someone has already found you a chair, grabbed your drop bag, offered to fill up your water, and cued up some hot food on the stove.
  • Of course Big Horn was "hard", but any 100 miler is going to be difficult and I really never felt "Godawful, stumbling around, put me out of my misery" bad, so I think it went pretty well.  The runner support was a huge boost.  Looking at it objectively the race is actually considered as a tougher 100 miler, due to the mountainous terrain, exposure, and changing weather conditions.  Its one of only a handful of qualifier events for the prestigious Hardrock 100.
  • Most of the aid station had similar offerings: water and electrolyte drink; satly and sweet dry snacks like chips, pretzels, or candies; fruit like watermelon, bananas, or oranges; simple sandwiches; some had hot foods like french toast, quesadillas, or even bacon; salty soups or broths were served in the cooler hours of the night.  I would typically graze on all of this, and eat extra water-filled fruit during the warm daytime hours.  I like to walk out still eating and carrying a little extra; ill stuff a banana in my vest pocket and eat it on the go.
  • I use the term ultra-"running" lightly.  In races of this distance there is a lot of power hiking when it becomes too steep, careful walking when rocky, and even walk breaks just when you get too tired or are feeling out of it.  The goal is just to get to the finish as fast as possible, running optional!  There are time limits though, and if you don't make it to an aid station in time you can get timed out and pulled off the course.
  • Getting 2 solid nights of sleep was without question critical for success in the race.  I never got that tired at any one point, not even at night.
  • To my disbelief, I didn't get sun burned at all.  This was a big concern, especially being fare skinned and used to running in often shaded east coast woods.  I took a lot of precautions including my arm sleeves, hat with ear and neck cover, and liberal amounts of sunscreen.  The mud and dirt that would eventually cover my legs probably helped as well.
  • Elevation hits everyone differently.  While it can be mysterious, I think it helps to incorporate VO2max boosting workouts into your training routine.  I believe that while ultra-runners need mountainous, trail training runs, a significant benefit is obtained from running a lot of weekly miles (often on roads), and incorporating tempos and interval sessions to boost your body's ability to process oxygen efficiently.  This is the essence of VO2max training theory, heightening the body's maximum oxygen uptake capacity. There is less oxygen at higher elevations, so while you may be a strong climber at sea level, functioning with less oxygen in the air can be daunting.
  • It very important to take time off after a race, even if it didn't go well, and even if you Did Not Finish (known as DNF).  Your body needs to heal up and your mind must mentally reset to your next goals.  If you don't you can risk physical injury, general fatigue, or mental burnout.  Avoid the temptation to just say the race was training for the next race, trying to redeem yourself by running another one too soon, or generally not taking time to reflect and record some lessons learned.  This being said, its much easier to go into maintenance mode if your race went as planned; and, the more experienced you are with ultras the shorter your recovery typically goes.