Friday, June 30, 2017

The Big Year Interrupted: A Western States DNF Story

I said before this race that I would be very disappointed if I didn't finish. I suppose that is true if you leave out the modifier "very". Of course I am disappointed. This is a prestigious race. My goal was not only this one but the following 3 races to complete the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. All of that is out the window, at least for this year. It may be years before I get another opportunity. I'm fine with that. At the same time, however, I am reflecting on what happened and will be working to correct my mistakes and learn from my failures.

As always, I began watching the weather forecast going into race week. The temperatures in Squaw Valley and Auburn were hovering around 100 degrees F. This was my main concern, especially since I had repeatedly heard how the canyons section of the course would be hotter due to the stagnant air in the canyons. When I arrived in Sacramento, the rental car thermometer read 109 degrees at one point. This had my attention.

Friday morning I went out for a a brief run to try to relax and loosen up after a long day of travel. I then headed out to the race check in. The second I stepped out of the car, I already saw someone I knew. Over and over during the morning I would see and talk to people I had run with or met at other races. This made me feel at home even though I was far away and made me realize how small our community really is.

This guy has no idea what is coming

I had my picture taken with my bib number. Nikki Kimball, female ultrarunning bad ass, put on my wristband and then I received my bag filled with Western States swag. The pre-race meeting was filled to capacity with runners and crews, the room heated by all the bodies and excitement. I still couldn't really believe I was there. None of it seemed real. I went back to my room and tried to relax but could not sit still.
When they cut this off, you are out of the race.

I ate dinner early and got into bed around 7 with the intention of trying to get around 7 hours of sleep. It was difficult to relax but eventually I slept, though it was fitful. I still woke up before the alarm and surprisingly did not feel tired. For the first time ever, I had all my gear completely arranged the night before. All I had to do was get dressed and head to the start line. This is one of the first times my race mornings felt completely stress free.

I arrived at the start with plenty of time for some breakfast and to try to get myself into the proper frame of mind. The time on the clock over the start ticked down. The time passed quickly. I was excited but not overly so. I knew I had a long day ahead but felt good and confident that I would get it done. The crowd of runners counted down the final seconds, a shotgun blast went off, and we all headed across the start line, up the Escarpment and onto one of the most courses in ultrarunning.

The race starts at the Squaw Valley Resort. Directly from the start the course climbs around 2500 feet in 3.5 miles. I figured this was a good way to start since the climb would force me to take my time and not go out too fast. The sun had fully risen by the time I reached the top. The rest of this section to the first aid station at 10 miles was difficult and very slow due to poor footing on the deep snow that had not yet melted away. Where there wasn't snow, it was muddy. The mud was very deep in places and a couple times I nearly lost my shoe in it. Many of the runners around me were extremely tentative crossing the snow which slowed me down even more. I must have picked the right shoes because I could cross the fairly easily without much concern about slipping on the sloped snow.

My arrival time at the first two aid stations was a good hour later than I expected due to these course conditions. I already felt far behind where I wanted to be but was not too worried. I considered that taking it slow early would pay off later. In the meantime I tried to enjoy the scenery which was wonderful. When I wasn't looking to keep my footing I would gaze off at the snowy mountains in the distance. I had never heard much talk about this aspect of the race before and it was an excellent experience.

The next section has us descending into Duncan Canyon and then climbing out and that is when the heat started to affect me, even though I never did feel too hot. The climb out was exposed to the sun but I had stopped at a couple creeks and doused myself well with cold mountain stream water. I was already a bit off on my eating plan but didn't really feel hungry. I was not too thirsty either but I feel like I kept up well with drinking. By the time I reached Robinson Flat, 30 miles in, it was already early afternoon. I took a few minutes to take care of a couple hot spots on my feet, which felt remarkably good compared to my races over the last year. Again I wasn't there in a time I wanted to be but I still felt very confident about having plenty of time to finish.

Climbing out of Duncan Canyon

The canyons section of the Western States is known for the heat. What I really wasn't prepared for was how steep and relentless the climbs up Devil's Thumb and Michigan Bluff would be. The combination of the heat and the climb took everything out of me. The descent into the first canyon was steep and I tried to not fly down in order to save my quads for later. I doused in the stream at the bottom and looked up to see a steep canyon wall. The climb was steep and my heart rate shot up. I tried to keep moving, even if it was slow but had to stop to try to catch my breath and get the heart rate down but it wouldn't.

I somehow got through this climb and was face with doing the same thing again going into Michigan Bluff. Again the descent wasn't too bad and the climb wasn't quite as steep but it just went on forever. I was beginning to fall dangerously close to the cutoffs. Prior to this climb I had paired up with a lady who had her headlamp at Michigan Bluff and asked if she could share my light. It did help to run with someone for a bit though both of us seemed to alternate in who was suffering from the heat.

Pulling into Michigan Bluff, I had around 20 minutes until the cutoff. I decided I would take 10 minutes and move on to Forest Hill. On the way in to the station I met up with Quinitn who was crewing and waiting for his runner to come in. He walked me in a gave me a bit of a pep talk. I really needed this and ended up only taking 5 minutes at the station before moving on, determined to make up some time on the cutoff at the next station.

The headlamp I had with me was my back up as I had my good primary one at Forest Hill. I had originally expected to get there around sundown but now I was way behind. At Michigan Bluff I had put new batteries in my backup lamp but it was still dim as I left. I tried sticking with it as long as possible, even asking several runners who passed me if they had batteries, which they didn't. I ended up pulling out my phone and using the flashlight app as a light source.

From Michigan Bluff to Forest Hill is 6.3 miles. I had 2 hours and 15 minutes to make the cutoff, which didn't seem too bad. I tried running here and there but was loosing my will. I still had hope that it would turn around at some point. I wasn't going to quit but I started to think that missing the cutoff was very likely. Most of this section followed a gravel road and at one point I realized I had not seen a course marker. I kept going for several more minutes looked back and didn't see any lights behind me. Had I missed a turn off onto the trail? I went back the way I came and about 10 minutes later saw the turn off I had missed. I had easily lost around 15 or 20 minutes. I pretty much knew at that point it was over. I would still try to keep going and make the cutoff but I knew. You may expect that I would be devastated at a mistake like this costing my race, but I also knew that even if I made the cut off at Forest Hill, it was still a very outside shot at finishing.

The Forest Hill station never seemed like it would come. As the cutoff time ticked down, I heard cheering up ahead, and it was too far away. They were cheering as the station closed. It was over. 11:45 PM. I was surprisingly OK with. There were no tears or overwhelming disappointment. It just was. I had done the best I could do this day and this was how it turned out. About 5 minutes after the cutoff I walked up to the school where the volunteers were furiously packing up.

No one took any notice of me for a minute or two. This was more upsetting to me then the actual end of my race. Eventually, someone walked up and asked if I was a runner and led me to the medical room where I lay in a cot and immediately cramped up painfully. After an hour or so I was driven to the finish line where I would spend the next 10 hours watching runner finish. It was inspiring to see people finish but it also stung a little bit. It was super inspiring to see fellow Arrowhead finisher Lourdes cross the line with about 15 minutes to spare.

So that was that. It was over that quickly. The Grand Slam was gone. My Western States lottery win was wasted. I was surprisingly fine with all of this and, in general, I have been in the days since. The only disappointment is in not knowing when I will get a chance to try again.

I have been replaying the race over and over since it ended. There is no place, other than the missed turn, that I honestly feel I could have done anything to get a different outcome. I did let me nutrition and hydration lapse slightly but overall I thought I did that fairly well. My pacing and effort level were good. My feet were in the best shape of any race over the last year. When I see the elite runner times and hear how they struggled, I am left wondering if I even had a chance. At the same time, others finished so, why couldn't I? The reasons I have come up with are in no way excuses and I think there are important lessons to learn. The reasons I have come up with are in no way excuses and I think there are important lessons to learn.

First, the conditions were a huge factor and those are, for the most part, out of my control. I should have worked in some more heat training but I feel that would have only given marginal improvement but, perhaps it would have been enough to get me over the hump.

Second, my schedule this year did not give me an opportunity to get the proper training build up. It was well into April before I started to feel "normal" again after the Hrimthurs. This resulted in not getting in the miles and/or training time necessary. I was worried about this and thought that maybe I could just be stubborn and tough my way through it. That is a dangerous game to play and sooner or later you lose. I did this time.

Third, I keep intending to do more strength and speed work. I did very little prior to this race, due once again to fatigue after the winter races. I don't think I need to do too much but I do feel that the climbs exposed my weakness here and I need to fix that.

Fourth, my weight going into the race was a good 10 pounds over where I thought I should be. Again, combined with strength training this would help in the climbs but should also help mitigate some of the effects of the heat.

Lastly, I don't think I respected the course as much as I should have. Maybe I have grown complacent, assuming I could just show up and finish any 100 miler because I have so many times before. The climbs were much harder than I thought they would be. The heat was much hotter. Western States is no easy, runable race for someone of my skill level. It was extremely humbling and I very much needed that.

I have to admit I over committed this year. I knew this but I went for it anyway. I'm still glad I tried. I have had a good streak of completing races. There is some creeping doubt now and I wonder if now I am just a fraud. Will I ever be able to finish another? This is probably foolish but the seed is there now.

So now what? In less than 3 weeks I will be headed to attempt 100 miles again in Vermont. I suppose I could have thrown out the remainder of the schedule since the Slam is over, but that would be giving up. It would be giving up on my commitment to these race. It would be giving up on an opportunity to learn from my mistakes. It would be giving up on a chance to run 3 other iconic ultras. It would have been giving up on myself and all the good I have done for myself by trying these crazy things. I'm not going to do that. I'm going to show up in Vermont at 4 AM on the 15th of July and do my best to finish that race.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Western States Preview

I was laying on the floor doing the corpse pose in a hot yoga session yesterday when it really hit me what is about to happen. I am only a few days away from running Western States. It is easily the most well known and followed race on the ultra-running calendar each year and I will be there. Not only will I be running this big race, I will be beginning an attempt at the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, which consists of four of the oldest 100 mile races over a twelve week period. 

The four months since the end of my winter racing season have seemed to fly by. I was exhausted in all aspects: physically, mentally and emotionally. The idea of running another series of races was still months away so I counted on the idea that I would be able to recover and get some good training in prior to Western States. It took a good couple of months before I started to feel somewhat normal again when I ran. The Lumberjack 50 gave me a ton of confidence by showing me that I could run 50 miles without it being a huge struggle. I thought back to this race often over the last couple of months. This was probably the turning point for me. Since then, I have not trained at the volume nor as with as much intensity as I intended. Still, I am feeling very confident that I will get to the finish one way or another. 

Other than the 50 mile race in April, I have had several long runs that, while not fast, went reasonably well. In the last couple of weeks I have even run a couple 5ks and a 10k, which were rather eye opening since I ran at speeds I didn't think I had in me after this past winter. To my amazement, I PR'd a 10k last weekend by 3 minutes. To be fair, I never run 10ks but I believe it indicates that maybe I am in better shape than I think I am. 

I spent Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning hanging out at the Mohican 100. I was able to observe runners passing through aid stations in the later parts of the race. This was very helpful at getting myself into the mindset needed to handle a 100 mile race mentally. I'm not looking forward to the extreme discomfort that is coming. I will, however, accept it and do all I can to remain positive and focused on moving forward and not wasting time in aid stations feeling sorry for myself. 

The taper madness has not been too bad this time, likely due to the fact that I never really sustained high mileage for this training block. I averaged between 50 and 60 miles a week, which compared to others is not that much. The need to recover from the winter dictated this so I feel it will be enough. At this point it will have to be.

Western States is a point to point 100.2 mile race with around 18000 feet of climbing and 22000 feet of descent. This much descent can make it a fast race but can also overload the quadriceps, slowing a runner to a snail's pace. The race begins in Squaw Valley, California and finishes on the track of Placer High School in Auburn. It passes through the high country, in and out of super heated canyons, and across rivers. It has been documented and filmed more than any other ultra that I know of.  

All downhill?

The forecast is calling for highs around 100 which will be even hotter in the still air of the canyons. Hot yoga and commuting without A/C have been my heat training. The heat factor will be the most concerning to me and will require much attention to hydration and pacing. 

There has not been a single run I have done over the last few months that I have not thought about running onto that track at the finish. I'm expecting it to be a very emotional experience. Finishing a 100 miler always is for me but this is one that I have thought about over and over and over. I have to get there first. Lately, I've finally been really craving to be out there and mid-race miserable again. I will also continue to remind myself that getting on that track is just another step. 

I try not to think about the possibility of failure but it does cross my mind. I suppose there is some pressure to perform since I have been discussing it publicly. I would be very disappointed if I didn't finish this or any of the four races coming up. However, without the possibility of failure there is no satisfaction in completing the goal. 

So, now all the time for talk is over. The race is only days away. I'm scared and excited at the same time. The next twelve weeks will be very difficult. It will hurt. It will also be fun and rewarding. I will be meeting many new people with similar experiences who I can learn from and share in the moments. I will be running races that many other ultra-runners would love to run. I will be running in beautiful places with wonderful people. I'm very lucky no matter the outcome. 

Western States has good runner tracking and you can track me here: 

The Western States site has good info about the course, results, etc. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Finish Lines

Somehow my silly hobby got me an interview on a running podcast. It just so happens that I am of huge fan of said podcast. I also happen to know the host since we ran the crazy Hrimthurs races together and several other races it turns out. He does great work with the show. It was a tremendous opportunity to tell people how running has become part of my life and made it better. I was very nervous about it and hope someone found something redeeming about it. The one thing I have learned was that even in a long form, two hour interview, you only get a very small fraction of the story. This is no fault of the host, who has the difficult job of getting to all the topics in a timely and engaging manner, which Scott does marvelously. It is up to others to judge my performance as I can not impartial. I put myself out there and open myself up for judgment.  I'm fine with that.
Each story that was told, each race that was mentioned had much more going on below the surface. Being on the show was a great chance to get some of that out. This format is my chance to further elaborate on the details. A chance to self reflect and to share the rest of those stories. If you're here reading then it is because, maybe, you want to hear these things. Thank you for that.
One example of a topic briefly covered was the story of my first marathon finish. The months leading up to this will have to covered in another, deeper dive of a post but they were not the best of times. Running began to become a release form the stress in my life. I started to be consumed with the idea of running a marathon. It was the ultimate feat of endurance that I knew of. Well, maybe an Ironman triathlon but that was just some insane fringe sport {wink}. I finally decided it was time to commit to it and the 2009 Detroit free Press Marathon was my target.
I looked online for how to prepare for a marathon. Like so many before and after me, I found the Hal Higdon program. The mileage for each day and each week was laid out simply and logically. My engineer's mind ate this up. I printed it out and began the first week of June 2009 for the race which took place in late October.
Week One consisted of short runs around 3 or 4 miles. The long Sunday run that first week was a whole 6 miles. I had never run over 4 and it seemed to be a daunting task. For some reason I trusted that I would be able to get through the 18 and 20 mile runs later in the plan. I went out and did that run, not knowing if I could. I recall feeling good the whole way. Coming into the last mile I realized I was going to do it. 6 miles. I was so proud of myself and, honestly, it is still a special running memory. In comparison to what has happened since it doesn't seem so amazing, however, nothing that came after would have happened without that day. It was a critical first step. I began learning how to face seemingly difficult tasks and realize that I am capable of doing more than I think I can, as all of us are.
As the weeks went on I built up my confidence. The long runs became longer and I was finishing them. Every day there was work to do towards the goal. I still had no idea if I could really do it or what it would be like. I was afraid to miss a workout and I did the exact mileage called for every time. I felt I had to follow the plan exactly because if I didn't there was no way I could succeed.
The long weekend runs kept me away from the home environment which was always tense and uncomfortable. My wife at the time and I were rarely talking any more or doing anything together and when we did it was just a waiting game for one of us to get angry about something. Running was my place to think. It was my place to focus on other things. It was where I could succeed or fail on my own terms. I didn't know it but I was learning a way to address and cope with issues I was having with myself, which will have to be another post (or 2 or 3).
As the race approached, I was nervous but started to feel that it was entirely possible. I struggled with an 18 mile training run but had felt great during the 20 mile run. The lesson that has carried over is that not every day is your best but struggling and getting through difficult days is the real test.
I left very early race morning, worried about finding parking and getting to the start on time. The race takes place in late October which in Michigan can swing between freezing or high 70s. It was freezing at the start. It was a long cold wait for the starting gun. I became a bit emotional as the crowd started to move forward. My first race ever was beginning.
There is really no need to give a detailed recap of the race. I felt good for the first half marathon. I fed off the crowds that big city marathons have every where. As the half marathoners veered off, the race became a little lonely. At 20 miles the day was heating up and I hit that wall marathoners talk about for the first time.
The last 6 miles was a mix of walking and running. It was somewhere here that my decision to divorce began to take shape. I had committed to the marriage and still for some reason hoped it could be saved. That faded the closer I got to the finish line and was gone by the time I jogged the final half mile with tears in my eyes to the finish. Everything would be different from then on.
The 1st finish line when it all began

That brings me to finish lines. I crossed that first finish line alone. I didn't know a single person that was there cheering. I had no one there supporting me or encouraging me. Though I had made a momentous decision, the moment I crossed the finish line wasn't some magical, cinematic moment. I simply ran across an arbitrary point in the universe. The next second life still continued just as before. I still had problems to deal with that finishing a race didn't solve. I'm sure I was not alone in mistakenly thinking that the completion of monumental goal will instantly produce positive results.
Since that race, I have worked my up to ultras and still occasionally have that flawed expectation of a triumphant finish.
Crossing the finish line of an ultramarathon can be one of the most anticlimactic events you'll experience. There are rarely large cheering crowds. Ice Age 50 had a nice group gathered along a finisher chute clapping as runners finished. When I finished Grindstone 100, it was  somewhere between 4 and 5 AM, and by the light of a single weak flashlight, I met the race director, who handed me a shirt and buckle. That was that after more than 34 hours of struggle. After finishing my first 50 miler, a huge step in my running development, I was handed a medal and then sat by a tree and cried.
No one I knew was there to share in that moment.
The rare exceptions stand out. My wife at the finish of my first 100. My brother, who met me at the finish of both Tuscobia and Arrowhead. My parents at the Marquette 50. My friend Chris most recently at the Lumberjack 50. These are are all very memorable to me. I cherish them.
Mohican 2014

Mohican 2016

As I run more races and get to know more people in the ultra running community, I recognize more of them at finish lines. Whether it is someone I've known for a while or just met that day on the trail, seeing them at the finish, congratulating each other, makes this sport fun. The triumphant finish isn't really what I needed, even though I thought I did. Getting to any finish line is a only temporary goal. The work and struggle to get there is the important part. Interacting with my fellow runners, who share similar experiences is important and helpful to me.
Personally, I enjoy hanging out at the finish line to cheer others on at the end of a race. From 5k to 100 milers you get to see the faces of those who fought to reach a goal and accomplished it. It is inspiring to, perhaps, see the moment when their lives have changed, even if there is no movie soundtrack playing or fireworks exploding.  I'm looking forward to my next finish line and what lies beyond.

Check out Ten Junk Miles Podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts

Western States 100 Preview post coming next week