Thursday, October 4, 2018

Unicorns, Rainbows & Failure

The buckle that got away
credit: Yeti Trail Runners

I attempted the Yeti 100 mile run this past weekend. I say attempted because I failed to finish. Yes, I have failed once again and its all ok.

The Yeti 100 has become very popular the last couple of years and I was very lucky to get in. It required me to sit by the computer and begin registering the very moment it opened. After meeting race director Jason Green last year, I was committed to running this race. He is one of the very best at what he does.

The race runs on a rail to trail course in southwest Virginia, which is a beautiful place I likely never would have seen without this silly hobby of mine. The Virginia Creeper Trail runs a bit over 33 miles from Abingdon to Whitetop. It is very flat but also much more scenic than I expected. Most of the course follows a river closely, which you cross over many times. In fact there are 46 trestles to pass over with each transit of the trail.

In order to get the full 100 miles, we began at Whitetop, the high point of the route. From there the race runs to Abingdon, back to Whitetop and then return to Abingdon to finish. A total of around 3000 feet of climbing and zero technical trail makes this easier than most 100 milers, at least on paper. All this being said, a 100 miles is never easy.

The night prior to the race there was a downpour. I heard someone say the next day that it was 4 inches of rain. Luckily this did not muddy up the trail though there were some shallow wet areas early on. All this rain did cause the river to swell up into rapids the entire race. There was a constant roar with us the entire day.

Since we began at Whitetop, we had a good 16 miles of slight decent all the way to Damascus, Virginia, which is approximately the halfway point of the trail. I tried to keep from running too fast, too early but I probably did anyway. Well before getting to Damascus the first time I was not feeling well. Even though the temperatures were good for running, the humidity was causing me to sweat much more than I would otherwise. I did recognize this and tried to make sure I was getting enough water. I'm not sure whether I did drink enough or came into the race slightly dehydrated, but I felt nauseous and tired way too soon. None of the food at aid stations looked good. I focused on salty foods to try to fix the hydration issue.

Despite moving at a good pace, the negative thoughts were becoming relentless. I have been working on recognizing these thoughts and replace them as soon as I can because they will kill a race quickly. When I reached Abingdon, they had overpowered me. Less than 8 hours in, I had had enough. I wanted to quit.

I sat down in Abingdon filled with self loathing and embarrassment. Wasn't I just wasting my time doing this meaningless, ridiculous thing? This is all ground I think I have covered in previous posts. The feeling of being a fraud and not belonging there overwhelmed me. I was regressing and had no answers. Frustration and disappointment continue to grow.

With the little pride I had left, I got up and headed back out towards Whitetop, my head down because I couldn't look anyone in the eye knowing that I was failing yet again. Experience told me here was still some hope that things would turn around and I would feel better. So I pushed on despite having that voice screaming at me to stop.

At some point between Abingdon and Damascus, Scott caught up with me and we spent the rest of our day together. When we stopped in Damascus, at the halfway point of the race, I had already decided I was done. Scott got me out of the chair and back out on the course. We slogged on as the sun set. The remaining hope was that cooler temperatures would make me feel better. Since you know the end, you know it didn't.

Scott and I talked off and on, which did take my mind off some of the negativity. This did help. The trail math said we had plenty of time to get the finish but we were slowing down with each mile. We turned around again at Whitetop. From there it was only 33 miles to the finish and we had 11 hours to do it. 3 mph with 16 of those miles being downhill and the rest flat. No problem.

We made it 10 more miles before Scott's feet were too blistered for him to keep a pace that would get us to the finish. It was all I needed to say I was done too. In truth I was done 44 miles earlier. We sat at the aid station, sleeping and shivering, waiting for a ride to the finish. Our day was done and I was fine with it.

Since Bigfoot, my motivation has never been lower. I talked about the physical effects in that post and they lingered all the way up to Yeti and even today. I'm sure some time off and proper training can get me back to where I want to be. I need a reset.

Mentally, I don't know what to do. When people ask about running ultras, I typically say that being physically fit is important but you can get through nearly anything by being mentally strong. It's 90% mental. Right now I am far from mentally strong which is something that, and I may be wrong, is not part of the ultrarunning ethos.

I feel that in admitting this I will heap scorn upon myself from certain other runners. Often in our community you hear a phrase like "Death before DNF". If you're not giving 110% every minute, every day then you are a mediocre loser. Well, that's me then. I'm proud of what I have accomplished and I shouldn't worry about what others may think but I do. Could I have done more and had better results. Yes and that is what still drives me. But is pushing against a wall while destroying myself mentally helping? Not right now. Sure, I could make myself run 20 miles a day, as fast as I can, but is that going to make me any better?

Since my massive failure in the Grand Slam last year I have been frustrated, easily annoyed by trivial things, and emotionally fragile. Depressed. That does not work well at mile 40 of a 100 mile race when you know you need to "suffer" another 12 to 20 hours. I need a reset to work on that. A step back to, hopefully, take two forward.

I suppose I clung to the idea that ultrarunning would fix my problems too long. Don't get me wrong. It helps. It can build confidence, encourage healthier living and give a feeling of belonging to a community. That only goes so far, at least for me. The pressure, likely imagined, to keep up and always be the hardest, toughest, least mediocre person out there wears me down. I need to find a way to eliminate it. How I do that is still a mystery.

Part of this blogging project was to be more open, both to sharing my thoughts and having new experiences. I have noticed that has allowed me to come to know and spend time with interesting people. Hopefully that continues.

I have Iditarod 350 coming up in February which will require me to be fully prepared in all aspects. My focus over the coming months will have to be on that to be successful and safe. I am entered in Tuscobia 160 and Arrowhead as preparation races, which I still need to take very seriously because they are serious races. This will probably be the last post until then unless something notable comes up. Until then, I will be seeking a way out of this rut and be the best person that I can be.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Samsquantch or Long Dark Blues

Real truth about it is
No one gets it right.
Real truth about it is
We're all supposed to try
There ain't no end to the sands
I've been trying to cross
The real truth about it is
my kind of life's no better off
If I got the map or if I'm lost.

-Songs:Ohia, "Farewell Transmission"  (aka "Long Dark Blues")

Mile 0
Photo credit: Scott Rokis

18 months ago I did something I thought was impossible when I finished Arrowhead the first time. It was not too long before that when I began hearing about 200 mile races. A couple popped up and then a couple more. I figured I would try one eventually when the time was right. Then running friends started doing them. The consensus seemed to be that the Bigfoot 200 in Washington state was the most beautiful and difficult. After some disappointment last year I thought I would reduce the schedule and the extra time would allow me to finally fit in a big race like this one.

A 200 mile race?

They sounded tough but not a race that couldn't be completed. The time limits seemed generous. I could run a 100 so a 200 would just mean slowing down even more and getting a nap or two in. Simple.

The Bigfoot 200 begins at the southern foot of Mount St. Helens. The course runs around the mountain, across the 1980 eruption blast zone and then meanders north towards the tiny town of Randle. 205 miles of mountain trails with over 42k feet of climbing and nearly 44k feet of descending. This was not going to be easy.

The doubt begins when I actually see the mountains in the distance. This doubt ramps up exponentially as I get nearer and look up to only see trees and trail ahead of me. As I drove to race HQ I tried to get a sense of what I would be facing. Some day I will learn this never works.

This is the portion where I run through the highlights of the race. I have a problem though. The race took place over parts of 5 days and 4 nights. It is impossible, no matter how I try, to recall notable events and when they happened. It all really does run together.

The night before the race I was calmer than prior to most races. That didn't mean I was relaxed or feeling ready to go. I finally got around to sorting out my drop bags and gear. Lately, this is a task I just put off even though it takes relatively little time. I suppose procrastinating on this makes the race seem further away when I 'm not ready. It did feel good to have it done, though I constantly worry that I am forgetting some critical item.
Pre-race organizing

We met the bus to the start at 5:30 AM on Friday. A two and half hour school bus ride is rather uncomfortable just prior to starting an ultra but part of the deal.  We arrived at the start about 45 minutes before the start so I had plenty of time to let the nerves settle in. I was not feeling my best. I awoke with a slightly upset stomach but was able to get a banana, muffin and some coffee down.


We're off!!
We left Marble Mountain Sno-Park and immediately started climbing the volcano. This was a long slow climb of over 3000 feet in the first 6 or 7 miles. At this point, we entered a boulder field which was a mile or 2 of scrambling over large stones. This all forced a slower pace which was good because this whole section was exposed and the day was getting warm. It was still the morning of the first day and I was sweating at an alarming rate.

The person on the far right gives some perspective of the boulder field. 

By the time I reached the first station, around 12 miles, I had just finished the 2+ liters of water I was carrying. Already at this first stop, nothing at the food table looked good but I got a few things down, grabbed a couple gels and moved on. I also emptied the volcanic sand from my shoes for probably the 20th time. I now understood why they were selling gaiters at the pre-race meeting.

The next section ran up the west side of the mountain and then across the 1980 blast zone on the north side. The afternoon was here and there was no protection from the sun since the trees have not returned to this area yet. While there was a good amount of elevation change, it was spread out. The footing was great as at times there was no real trail to follow.

Navigating around a volcano
photo credit: Hames Ellerbe

The going was slow but consistent until 10 or so miles in when my water was nearly empty. I tried rationing it, hoping to find a stream to refill. The landscape was stark and dry with no sign of water. My stomach began to turn as my need for calories increased. I tried getting an energy bar down but had to chew endlessly to work up enough saliva to swallow it. I was beginning to feel awful and not even to the first sundown. After what felt very long, we came across a tiny stream of water running down the mountain. The problem was that the water was milky gray from the volcanic ash. Luckily, I read the runner manual that recommended a water filter. I took a few good gulps of filtered water and moved on. This held me over until reaching what the race director called an "oasis" about a mile further down the trail. A ribbon of green brush wound down the mountain, indicating a stream of clean snow runoff. I refilled my water bottles, relieved I could try to recover from several hours of poor hydration.

photo credit: Howie Stern

It was shortly before the sun set that I finally reached the second aid station. I was as relieved as reaching this station as I have been finishing some races. I was hot, thirsty, hungry and getting tired. This was mile 28 and I already felt spent. How could I possibly get through multiple nights and another 170 something miles? I sat dejected and frustrated in the chair trying to find some food I could get down. Looking around, the other runners seemed to be feeling the same way I did.

Thankfully the next section was only around 9 miles and not too much climbing. Basically, we were headed back across the blast zone but on a more northern route. I got myself up and set off, hoping to cover as much ground as possible before losing the sunlight. The temperatures began to drop as soon as the sun moved behind the mountains. I stopped several times to just look back at Mount St. Helens in the waning light and enjoy the moment.

Coldwater Lake was up next and the first stop that was designated a sleep station. My plan was stopping to get  a quick nap either here or the next station. The next was 19 miles away so the choice was almost made for me. The last two sections were relatively easy but I was still struggling with getting food and water in. I was offered a cheeseburger, got that down and headed to a sleep tent.

The volunteers tracked who was sleeping where and when they wanted to be up. It turned out to be a very good system. I told them to wake me in 45 minutes. The sleep stations were just large tents with sleeping pads on the ground and a mess of blankets. Lying down I didn't feel like I would sleep but next thing I knew I was getting tapped on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to get up. "No but I will". I picked myself up, wrapped a blanket around myself, and sat to get a few more calories in.

Leaving this station I had no idea what I was in for. It was a long, hard stretch of 18 miles with over 5k feet of climbing and another 4k feet descending. I left Coldwater around 4:30 AM, rolling along easily along the northern edge of the lake before meandering up and through the mountains, reaching the high point of the race a Mount Margaret near 6k feet. Never mind that it took me 6 hours to get to that point from Coldwater. That time was filled with doubt and disbelief. After having made it through the heat and dehydration of the day before and going through most of the night, I felt there was no way I could make it through another night let alone 3 more based on my pace.

After returning from the short out and back to climb Mt. Margaret I met a lady with a heavily taped knee limping along. I told her the out and back was not as far as it looked, to which she responded that her knee was very painful on descents and she was dropping at the next aid so she would skip that section. I said she should just do it, get to the aid and, since there was plenty of time, wait and see if things got better. She turned around and made the climb.

From here to the final day is all very hazy in my mind and jumbles together. This stretch was long and difficult. I began trying to slow down even more on climbs to keep my heart rate from spiking and then sweating too much. The pace felt so unbelievably slow. Looking to find the top of a climb I would become discouraged. So I put my head down and just kept moving and the top would eventually come. In between these mental climbing struggles, I was contemplating just straight up retiring from ultrarunning. The repeated refrain of "you're not even good at this, you not having fun and you're not fooling anyone" just repeated over and over. "Just stop. You can't possibly go another 75 hours. This is stupid."

Relying on my previous race experience helped me through this section. Shifting my focus to my breath during a climb or just when my thoughts were becoming too negative, which was very often at this point. Thinking about the full distance was overwhelming so I tried just concentrating on getting to the next station. Despite all these methods that had worked many times before, I was convinced that there was no possibility of finishing. All the reasons for quitting just kept getting longer as I tried to find the one I could give later that would be accepted by my fellow runners.

I've known my friend Chris for something around 35 years. A cool part of doing this race was a chance to visit with him. He seemed to think this whole thing was interesting and decided to be at the start and visit any aid stations he could. The upcoming Norway Pass was the first chance he would have since the start.  He's always been a person I've admired and the thought of quitting while he was here supporting me was unpalatable.

Finally arriving at Norway Pass aid, I saw the familiar face like I'd hoped. Sitting down, I began relating what had gone on since I had seen him at the start, probably ranting like a crazy person. I relaxed and opened one of the beers I had stashed in my drop bag. Burger, beer, new socks, and replacement shoes for the second pair in two races that blew out. Half an hour or so of collecting myself and I felt back to normal again. I left feeling good for the first time in the race.

Taking care of those feet
The hardest part: Leaving an aid station

The next section were fairly uneventful. We started moving into more wooded areas which protected from the sun for the most part. I tried sleeping at the next station as I was so sleepy when I rolled in, however, I was lying on a cot outside and every time the wind picked up, it would blow under the cot making too cold to sleep, yet I didn't want to get up. After 45 minutes or so, I got up in frustration and left to face the night with not enough sleep.

I struggled with some sleepiness going into that second night. This section was fairly hard from my unreliable recollection. 14 miles and what seemed like one climb after another. Some hallucinations were beginning and I was occasionally looking around me looking for mountain lions or bears. Moving slowly and consistently I worked to just reach the next station where I could sleep. When I reached it, I followed the now established pattern: burger, sleep, breakfast burrito, refill food and water, off again.

As the sun rose again, the course descended to the Lewis River which we followed for several miles. This are was flat and populated with campgrounds and tourists viewing waterfalls or walking their dogs, giving us strange looks. This was a welcome relief from all the hills of the previous 2 days. Also, this section was significant since it bracketed the half way mark of the race. My mind could still not comprehend how it would be possible to go another 100 miles but, again, I would breathe and focus on the getting to the next aid station.

I have little recollection of the Lewis River aid station and I believe I only stayed long enough to eat, again wanting to cover as much of the next section in the daylight as I could. I was beginning to feel awful again. My stomach had recovered and was now demanding all those calories I had missed earlier in the race but I had to cover 19 miles and climb well over 5k feet to get to that food.

When I arrived at the Council Bluff station, I was hungry, tired and growing irritable. It had been around 9 hours since the last stop. I sat down and immediately one of the volunteers was saying there was no sleeping here and we needed to move on. Someone brought me a bowl of chili, which I began to eat and realized it was vegetarian chili. There were not many other options that looked any good to me. It was tasty but not what I wanted. I became more irritable. Noticing this I decided I needed to move on. The station was one of the more remote so they were limited on supplies that could be brought in, hence the lack of sleep tents and plentiful food options. It was the middle of the night, I wanted to sleep but I needed to cover 9 miles to get to the next sleep tents.

I left a bit disgruntled but settled right back into being miserable on the trail, slowly moving forward and checking off those aid stations. The is stretch to Chain of Lakes aid was only 9 miles and a couple thousand feet of climbing and descending. I was fighting sleep desperately the entire way. I did arrive into the station in just over 3 hours which meant I was moving fairly well. Rolling in I grabbed another burger and then headed to the sleep tent. This tent was deluxe compared to the others. It had cots and was heated. Pure luxury. My plan now was to get a good 2 hours of sleep and hope that could carry me most of the way to the finish.

This time for some reason I decided to just set an alarm on my phone instead of getting a volunteer to wake me. I slept a little fitfully but when indications of sunlight started to hit my eyes, I picked up my phone to check how much longer I had to sleep. I had zero time. It was 6:45 and I had set my alarm for 5:45. So naturally I went into full on panic mode. I had overslept and possibly ruined my whole race.

Grabbing some quick food, I bolted out of there a complete emotional mess. How could I be so stupid? Had I gone through all of this so far just to oversleep and not fail? It took a couple miles before I calmed down and realized I only left slightly over half an hour later than I planned, I couldn't make it all up by pushing to hard, and I actually still had more than enough time. I still had the longest and, reportedly, the toughest section coming up so I was concerned with getting through that. I relaxed and settled back into the routine. Step, step, breathe, breathe.

The next 18 miles followed along the top of ridge most of the way. The sun rose and the day became warm. For the first time in the race, I started to be bothered by insects any time I stopped. I felt better from the extra sleep but the heat was beginning to wear me down again. Fantasies of finding the perfect pine tree to lay under in the cool shade swirled around in my head. I tried a couple times to lie down and get just a few minutes of sleep, but within seconds the flies would land on me, not allowing any peace, so I would reluctantly move on. Just prior to the aid station was a required out and back to the top of Elk Peak. The climb up it was very intimidating at first but I was so focused on getting to the station I didn't hesitate going up. The round trip turned out to not be as bad as I thought and I rolled into Klickitat nearly 2 hours sooner than I expected.

I don't recall at what point I began thinking about grilled cheese but it was at least 2 or 3 hours. I was so happy to reach Klickitat. For some reason, I had in my mind from the beginning that if I made it to this point, there would be no doubt of a finish. So jogging in I felt some relief from the panic earlier in the day. I sat down and when the friendly volunteer asked what I wanted, I told her exactly what I had been turning over in my head for so many miles. I wanted 2 grilled cheese and some mayo to dip it in. Horrific I know but those two grilled cheese sandwiches may have been the best of my life. I followed this with a couple breakfast burritos. Needless to say, when I left, my stomach was overly full and it took a solid half an hour before began to feel normal again.

My feet until this point had been in decent shape, which was remarkable considering the mileage and terrain, but things were falling apart. The balls of my feet were beginning to get that familiar sting of blisters forming. I knew that at this point in the race I would be fine with however bad they got I wasn't stopping for a stupid blister. It hurts for a little bit then just blends in with everything else.

I had heard from several other runners that this next stretch was one of the hardest of the race. It turned out to not be too bad. It was around 17 miles and 5k of climbing. The climbs were spread out and by this point int he race I was just putting my head down and grinding forward without even thinking about the discomfort. It was a very long stretch, however, to get through mentally. It was overgrown by cover that made it difficult to see what you were stepping on or over. There were dozens of downed trees to climb over and around. It just seemed to go on forever.

This was the last night to get through. I never reached a winter ultra level of hallucinations, probably due to the minimal sleep I was able to get. I did have the best ones on this section. The super tall fir trees began to look like ancient Greek gods. A little more than an hour from aid station I saw what thought was a giant Zeus, 100 feet up in a tree, opening his mouth to reveal Athena. I chuckled and kept hiking forward.

I made it into the Twin Sisters, the penultimate station around 1 AM. I ate, took a 45 minute or so nap, and had the balls of my feet taped, in an effort to keep the blisters from getting worse. Overall, I took close to two hours here. My finishing time didn't matter. I had plenty of time to make the cutoff. All I had to do now was keep moving, clicking off a mile here and a mile there.

From Twin Sisters to Owens Creek was a combination of heaven and hell. Many more downed trees and the overgrowth was still bad for several miles. There was a short out and back to climb Pompey Peak. This was a tough little climb but I knew it was the last one of the race. The trail after this widened and gently sloped downward. Another runner passed me while running and I decided to try it out and realized that it felt amazing to actually run, instead of "power hiking".

The final aid station of an ultra is always upbeat and fun. Everyone at this point knows the finish is just a formality. This one felt like a party. After the tequila shot a quarter mile before, I was feeling nothing but joy. I ate an insanely delicious plate of eggs, bacon, potatoes, avocado and cheese. I washed it done with another Rainer beer. Out I went, next stop, a 200 mile finish.

I strolled out onto a beautiful wooded forest road for several miles, thinking the entire time that I could not believe I was really going to do this. The forest road turned onto the paved road that would lead into the finish. I continued to alternate between walking and running. The day was growing warmer but not as bad as previous days. I moved along, trying to understand what all this meant to me.

I passed through Randle quickly and turned toward the high school where I would finish on the track around the football field. That final road seemed much longer than it should of been, allowing the emotions to rise up to the surface.

I stepped onto the track. Making the circuit around it, I thought of how I had failed so miserably to have a similar at Western States last year. I thought about DNFs at Leadville and Wasatch. My failure to get a Boston qualifying time back in April. My terrible showing at Ronda del Cims that made me doubt I should even try to do these things any more. This made up for all of it. I needed this finish. I needed to prove to myself that I could still do this. Often, failing makes the success that much more satisfying.

Disbelief and relief
Photo Credit: Howie Stern
Mile 206
Photo credit: Howie Stern

This was easily the most remote and isolated race I have done so far. There were none of the usual signs of humans. There were no random pieces of food wrappers or a broken piece of camping equipment. This land was free of that. It was remote, alone and so very dark at night. Many of the trails were overgrown, indicating how rarely they are used, meaning we were seeing places that few people see. These are the places and sights that draw me to do these ridiculous races. There were dozens of moments where I would stop to take in the scenery and becoming very emotional, whether it be from the raw beauty, fatigue or a combination of the two.

The organization of this race was excellent. The aid stations were everything you could want. Plenty of food and attention from volunteers, many of whom, obviously, are ultrarunners and know what is needed. I never got lost so the course marking was well done as well (I could not imagine getting 206 mile course marked). I'd recommend this race to anyone looking for a beautiful challenge.

I not only had the opportunity to discover and explore an amazing part of the world but I, once again, met a whole new group of fun and inspiring ultrarunners. Over the 4 days out there, I was able to come into contact with so many new faces. I was repeatedly inspired, encouraged and entertained.

I want to give thanks to all those who have and continue to provide encouragement. It really does help. I would hope that I can and do give that back to everyone as well. The thought that I would be letting people down by quitting does help get through some of those difficult times. I'm forever thankful for this.


What have I done???
It's ok. I have a burger and a beer. 

It has been nearly 3 weeks since I finished and I am tired. It is a deep down tired. I have run a few times since then and a vast majority of these runs were just plain bad. Sleep has been getting better but it has taken time since my schedule was so disrupted. I wake up, not feeling sleepy, but as if any physical activity would be too much. I have taken days off. I have tried to go easy on my runs. I feel like I did last year after finishing the Hrimthurs.

There is not much in the tank and it feels miserable. When I run, there is little joy in it and I just want to quit. When I don't run, I feel like I am losing fitness and wasting an opportunity to improve. Just pushing through it did not seem to work last year. I should probably just take another week off but that would drive me, and, most likely, my wife crazy. I know this will eventually pass like all things do, good or bad.

Next on the schedule is the Yeti 100 with the original goal of running under 24 hours and getting a sweet buckle. However, at this point I would be happy just finishing and hanging out with some really cool and inspiring people. It's just running after all.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Not A Mountain Runner

I never expected to fall in love but it happened nonetheless. I've mentioned in previous posts about discovering new places and things thanks to running. Andorra was a place I likely would not have visited without the prospect of running a difficult 100 miles race. The race may not have gone as expected but the overall experience has had a great impact on me.

Ultrarunning teaches many lessons. This race gave me a well needed dose of humility. Since finishing the Order of Hrimthurs last year I feel like I have been coasting along and not making much progress. Training has become stale, which was a main reason I decided to run a road marathon in an effort to change things up. This helped somewhat but I did not give this race the respect it deserved. The lack of proper training was evident from the start.

I arrived in Barcelona a couple days early, which gave me a chance to do some sightseeing. It had been 20 years since I had been in Europe. I still had the same feeling getting off the plane. The weather was hot and sunny. I wandered around the city looking for museums and historical churches.

The main attraction was the Sagrada Familia, which is the still unfinished basilica designed by Antoni Gaudi. The exterior was chaotic and rough looking but the sculptures were very interesting. Stepping inside the design flipped to be very smooth and sleek. The stained glass windows were stunning, red dominated on one side and transitioning to softer blue tones on the opposite.

The next day was spent wandering the Gothic quarter and going through a Picasso and then a Joan Miro gallery museum. Barcelona gave the impression of being an art and culture oriented city and taking pride in that. Both museums very interesting. I was particularly fascinated by some of Picasso's work from when he was still a teenager, which you would think was the work of a much older, conventional professional artist.

Medieval alleys
Race HQ in Ordino, Andorra
The drive to Andorra was only 3 hours and not much over 100 miles away. It was my first time driving a manual in quite a while but it felt good, like I was driving for real again. Arriving in Andorra, the mountain roads and roundabouts made it interesting and slow going but the scenery was becoming more and more beautiful. The roads wound through the mountains, coming to village after village tucked into each valley. It was all like a setting from fairy tales. The buildings were all made from local mountain stones. Narrow alleys wound behind the buildings, hiding little creeks and small green spaces. Very idyllic. Small fields of grapes or vegetables were made wherever there was available space between buildings. Remove the automobiles and you'd swear it was a medieval town.

While stepping out of my hotel to check in and pick up my bib, I met two runners from China and gave them a ride into town. We talked about the race and how difficult it would be. I offered them a ride to the start line the next morning, which thrilled them since they could avoid the mile plus walk into town before the race. Once again, through running I have the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and share in great experiences.

International relations are easy

After seeing the landscape surrounding the town, I was getting more and more nervous about the race. 105 miles with over 40k feet of climbing and another 40k descending. If those numbers mean nothing to you then I will tell you that a profile like this is very, very difficult. That is close to an Everest and a half from sea level and then right back down again. I still couldn't get my head around it as I laid down to sleep the night before the race.

The nerves were biting me a bit and I had some trouble sleeping. The lady outside my window, arguing with who I assumed was a boyfriend of husband, in Catalan at 2 AM didn't help my sleep situation. I still woke up a before my alarm went off and started preparing to race.

The start line for my first European race was a strange experience. On the way into the chute, volunteers were checking for a random item on our list of mandatory gear. A team of drummers was making music while effigies of some sort of royalty were carried around. Fireworks and lots of noise were too much this early in the morning. Finally all the festivities were done and the race was under way.

We briefly ran down some pave roads circling out of town and then quickly transitioned to single track trail going up and up and up. From this point forward there was not a single flat area on which to run. The climb never seemed to end. We would climb and turn into another climb. There may be a brief descent but that would not last. Occasionally the trees would clear and I could look down on the town where we started. We climbed steadily through the woods for a couple hours before emerging to an open valley with views of mountains and ridges in front of us. More climbs to come.

It was at about this point that I met a runner from Romania. He said we should team up as that would make the time go by quicker, which it certainly did.  We continued to make this first big climb together, talking about our experiences. We would continue this for the rest of the day, which helped get through some difficult sections.

The first climb finally ended. A couple more miles crossing the ridge and descending through a valley led to the first aid station. This was approximately the 20k mark (12 miles) and it had taken me nearly 6 hours to arrive. This pace would mathematically get me to the finish but I would never be moving like this at mile 95. I wasn't worried as I had been told by multiple people that the most difficult climbs were in the first half of the race. Still, I was already feeling much more fatigued than I knew I should be.

This was also my introduction to the European ultra aid station. I was concerned about what food and drinks would be available. North American stations are full of fruit, candy and PB&J sandwiches. Coke, Gatorade, ginger ale are all standard. I looked down at this table and saw chunks of cheese and hard salami. Nuts and olives with fizzy water to drink. I tried to eat what sounded best but ended up leaving the station unsatisfied.

My shoe with only 100 miles blew out very early

The next station was about 12 to 14 km away at a ski resort. Based on the pace so far, it would be a long haul. A long climb followed by several small descents and then more climbing. I was now fully aware that I lacked and training or natural ability to move efficiently through the mountains. By the time we reached the next station, I was resigned to the fact that I would not make the cutoffs coming later. I just couldn't move fast enough.

Looking back down at Arcalis station with some regret
The volunteers at the station let us know that we were now the last runners to come through as everyone behind had dropped. I laughed. Of course I was last While sitting there refueling I had been thinking about when would be the best time to pull the plug. My Romanian companion came up and asked if I was going to keep going and that he would do whatever I decided to do. I just said," Might as go to the next station" and off we went, climbing the ski slopes while wondering if I had made a good decision. Clouds were low and ominously rolling in over the peaks and obscuring the path ahead.

I fought the urge to turn back only a couple hundred yards away from the station. I kept hoping my Romanian companion would say, "let's just stop here." The next section was reportedly 10 km yet took us 5 hours. There were two peaks to climb and a long steep descent into the station. This was the most scenic section I had seen so far but also the most technical. We wound over passes and around mountains and lakes. There was a narrow rocky descent followed by a slide down a small snow field.

Evening in the Pyrenees
The sun hung on the edge of setting for what felt like hours. I only had to use my headlamp for the last hour or so of the trek. The sounds of the cowbells echoed between the mountains. We descended a long final valley before approaching the foot of the highest peak in Andorra. This would be the end of my attempt.

After some confused cross language conversation I was sent on what must have been a 2 mile walk, down into the nearest little town to meet the van and ride back. This was the first time I really felt negative all day. That may sound strange since I had failed so miserably, I mean, I only made a quarter of the distance, barely. All day I had enjoyed the scenery and experience so much, I didn't care about the time or not being able to finish. The race was secondary, only an excuse to be here and take all this in.

Ubiquitous Spanish beer
Here I was back at the start/finish after only managing a quarter of the distance and no place to go since I didn't book a hotel for the days of the race. Since I would get into one until the next afternoon I walked back to my car, leaned the seat all the way back and tried to sleep. I did manage to get a few hours of sleep before the sun was up and made it too hot to sleep in the car. I tried to clean up as well as I could with no shower access and then hung around the cafes near the race HQ.

The day was spent eating, laying around watching the World Cup and wondering how those that remained in the race were doing. Early in the afternoon a rather nasty thunderstorm moved through. I later learned that the storm had caused the organizers to stop runners at checkpoints and eventually cancelling the race for those who had not reached a certain distance due to lightening and large hail. This would have meant that even if I had kept going and miraculously made the cutoff, I would have had my race end anyway.

Some consolation was gained when talking to a few runners with serious resumes and they stated that this race was one of the most difficult around. I certainly didn't help myself with my training. The one true regret I have is that I didn't get to see the rest of the course. The portion I did see was beautiful and distracted me from any of the usual ultramarathon suffering. Then again, I didn't last long enough to reach a typical suffering point.

It was an extremely memorable trip. I finally got to see Barcelona. I met a whole new group of runners from all over the world. I learned about more races. I visited and explored in a place I never would have gone otherwise. Andorra was beautiful and I am looking forward to coming back to finish this race one day.

Even my trip home was memorable. After 10 days, I was looking forward to being home. I had to get up around 1 AM to make the drive back to Barcelona for my flight. Dinner at my hotel didn't start until 7:30 so that did not leave much time for sleep, which I only ended up getting an hour or two. Driving through the mountains and roundabouts in the dark at 2AM with little sleep was a bit stressful. I couldn't wait to get to the freeway. When I was almost out of Andorra, I saw a person up the road swinging what looked like a flashlight. I assumed it was a stranded driver until I saw the lights on top of the car. They signaled for me to stop. Rolling down the window, I said hello. "You speak English?" the policeman asked me.
"This is alcohol screening" and then they proceeded to hand me a package with a mouthpiece in it, and directed me to plug it into the device he had.
It was now I though about the one beer I had at dinner 6 hours ago. What was the law here? Was any trace at all too much? I kept my eyes on the digital screen as I blew into the mouthpiece. 0.00 and I was on my way. I had avoided Andorran prison, at least for now. I eventually made it home after 30 hours of car driving, plane flying and train riding. Much longer than I lasted on the course

I've struggled to run much in the time since, almost as much a I have struggle to write this recap. The decline since finishing the Order of Hrimthurs has not appeared to swing back yet. I was happy with the marathon training but overall I'm finding it harder and harder to put in the work needed to perform at my best at these events. Maybe I'm not really cut out for this. Maybe I'm not being honest with myself over why I attempt these races.

The thought of giving up on this has crossed my mind very fleetingly but even that is jarring. There is so much I feel like I want to try to do but is it worth the physical and mental toll? I don't know. Maybe a short break is needed to reset. However, the idea of training to build endurance back again from zero is not pleasant.

I am still very excited about Iditarod and will be working towards that for the remainder of the year. First though I have the Bigfoot 200 this coming weekend. Perhaps it will be the catalyst I need to get restarted and invigorated. Either way I will try to enjoy it, work hard and make it a positive experience.

Random photo section:

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Ronda del Cims Preview

Once again I feel like the time has slipped away from me. After my last race at Grayson Highlands I felt like I had plenty of time to finish preparing for Ronda del Cims in Andorra. I had visions of all I felt I should do to be ready and, like always, I end up doing only a fraction of it. Either way, the race is almost here and it will turn out however it turns out. I feel a little unprepared but I care much less about that than I usually do. This race is going to be ridiculously hard, perhaps the most difficult race yet, but I'm going into it relaxed and without expectations.

My current assessment of my fitness
The Principality of Andorra is a micro-nation nestled in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. Ronda del Cims is one of several race distances offered and the longest solo version. It follows the border around the entire country, which covers around 170 km (105 miles) and has over 80k feet of elevation change. The course is mountainous and technical which makes it one of the select few races to be a Hardrock 100 qualifier. The altitude is not as severe as Hardrock but will still be a factor for a Midwesterner like me.

It took no more than a couple messages from Scott and I was signing up for this race. The pictures and videos were breathtaking. I have since heard nothing but good things about this race. Despite vowing to do fewer races this year, here I was signing up for another one. The fact that it was in Europe made it even crazier. The opportunity was there so I am taking it.

Right now, I feel like I have a different attitude and outlook compared to previous races. I know it is going to be very hard. I know it will be beautiful and memorable if I finish or not. Maybe I am maturing in this silly hobby and not taking race results as seriously as I once did. I'm never going to win or place high but I still want to feel like I ran as well as I could. I've come to a place where truly enjoying the overall experience is most important. I'm learning more and more that having the experience is the most important part.

The weeks since my last race have been filled with events that have helped finally reach this new outlook. I had been moving in this direction already. Celebrity suicides brought mental health issues out as a topic of discussion and contemplation. I have watched as many of my running friends grieved the loss of a young lady from our ultra community, who I didn't know but wish I had. The sudden traffic death of a former co-worker who had survived cancer and whom I had just spent some time reminiscing a few short weeks prior. All these things have made trivial things seem even more trivial to me. It has also made time with friends and family much more meaningful.

This past week was Western States week, which is probably the biggest week of the year for ultrarunning. Everyone is watching and following the race. For some reason, it seems that every year this week brings out the best and worst in the community. There are lots of positive things that happen related to that race. Tons of encouragement and relating of inspiring stories. There are those with criticisms of the race or the hype around it, much of which is valid. However, it also seems to bring out petty grudges and jealousies. I've been noticing more and more of that recently around ultra social media which is disappointing. I choose to just run when and where I want to and not worry about the other garbage.

I've said it, and many others have as well, so I'm not really breaking any ground here. It's just running. It is something I do that has provided an outlet. Right now, it is providing me an opportunity to run around some weird European country left over from middle ages. I can go into with an expectation to perform to some unrealistic standard I expect of myself or what I believe others expect, when in the end, I'll be the one with the memories and a my finishing time won't matter to anyone, including me.

Anyway, my training has been mediocre. It should still be enough to get through this run. I'm counting on experience to get me through the worst parts. As always, if I just keep moving forward and try to keep the attitude positive, I'll do just fine. In the end, the race is just a small part of the whole package. It is a reminder that whatever we are facing at the moment is just one thing that will pass onto the next thing, good or bad.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Pacing at Lighthouse 100

The starting point

While creating my schedule for this year, I had considered running a 100 miler in late May or June as a step towards Ronda del Cims and Bigfoot 200. The one that seemed to fit in well was the Lighthouse 100. The timing was decent and the location in northern Michigan was convenient. I was close to running it but decided I should concentrate on specific training for my upcoming races and avoid possible burn out. However, the opportunity came up to be a pacer and I couldn't pass it up.

All this time in ultrarunning and I have finally had the pacer experience. I have seen plenty of fellow runners with their pacers late in races and occasionally have been jealous. I've never had a pacer and this was the first time I have paced. It turned out to be an excellent experience.

Perfect day for a run

The Lighthouse 100 is in its 2nd year. This year the course was reversed from the inaugural year, running from the tip of Old Mission peninsula, down through Traverse City and on to the city of Petoskey, basically following along the coast of Lake Michigan. The whole course is almost exclusively on paved roads with some stretches of paved bike path. The weather was perfect for this type of race. There were aid stations spaced about 10 miles apart with some water drops in between for runners without crews. This was also the first time I had experienced a race with this type of road crewing, where the crews would just move a 2 or 3 miles ahead, along the road and meet their runner.

So the opportunity for me to be involved was in the form of a Facebook post asking for a pacer nearby. Usually I would not respond to such a request but I decided to step out of my comfort zone and go ahead and give it a try. The runner has much ultra experience, which gave me a chance to learn. Also, she is a multiple finisher of a race that has some interest to me. How could I pass this up?

It was strange watching the race start and not be in the pack disappearing up the road. We made a couple stops in the first 9 or 10 miles, which wound through the vineyards and orchards of the Old Mission Peninsula. At this point I jumped in to start my pacing duties, which I would be sharing with one other. There was no real plan as to how we would go about this but ended up just running until we felt like we needed a break and then would switch off. This race had no restriction on when a pacer could join in, which is commonly around 50 miles, give or take. This meant I would get plenty of miles in.

I was nervous about being able to be a good pacer. I wasn't sure if I was fit enough to keep up or interesting enough to keep a runner company for many hours. The alternate pacer was just coming off a recent illness and was not at 100% which would increase my miles a little further. He did a decent number of miles despite not feeling well.

There were many stories told, many about races or people we've met at races. I mostly listened and tried to absorb the knowledge. The talking kept my mind off all the running. The pace was consistent. We would reach the crew vehicle every half an hour or so which made the going seem very easy. Watching her and her husband, who was the crew chief, work at the stops was an education. The organization and efficiency was amazing. They had a system developed over many years that worked very well.

Running through the sunny afternoon, I began to realize how quickly the miles seemed to be passing by. We were into the late 60s and early 70s by the time the sun set. The pace slowed but the relentless focus was still there. The day was not too hot but the sun going down allowed temperatures to become even more comfortable for running.

Eventually the miles are whittled down to single digits remaining. We passed through a couple towns, getting strange looks from the locals wondering who these weird runners with headlamps on were. The final section was nearly all a paved path which was much less stressful than running on the side of a busy road. We began to anticipate the finish around every corner and finally there it was.

I ended up running about 60 miles and felt good. My runner finished with her second best 100 mile time ever so I felt good to have, perhaps, helped make that happen. It was strange to run so much and not be a "finisher" in the race but being able to help someone else reach a goal was very satisfying.

The whole pacing experience was very good. There was much to learn from watching the race from this perspective. The mental approach and attitude I was able to observe hold valuable lessons to apply to my own running. Hopefully I can apply these very quickly as I have two big races coming up shortly. I will be looking for chances to pace again. It seems I have been missing out on a fun part of this whole ultrarunning thing. Maybe I'll even consider having a pacer myself in a race some day.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Breaking News

A few posts ago I hinted at some pending exciting news to come. Well, today is the day to report on that. I'm very excited about this journey ahead for myself and the others I know who are taking part. At the same time I am humbled by the task in front of me.

Last year, I completed the Order of Hrimthurs, which was the hardest thing I had ever done. It included the life changing 160 miles of Tuscobia, the legendary and iconic Arrowhead 135 and, finally, Actif Epica which I appreciate more as time passes. When I started running ultras 6 short years ago, those were all races that were unreachable and impossible to imagine starting, let alone finishing. The lesson learned is that by taking a chance, you find out you can do much more than you think.

Early last month I decided to take another chance on something that long seemed an unattainable dream. After going back and forth as to whether I was ready or capable, I submitted an application to what had become a bucket list race for me. Yesterday I received this...

I've only known about this race since I started running ultras so to say this was a lifelong dream would be vastly overstating it. I have had a fascination with Alaska since I was 8 or 9 years old. It was a place of mystery, freedom and adventure. I've always wanted to go and now I will have the chance.

My previous races qualified me to enter the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350. I will have 10 days to make the 350 mile journey from near Anchorage to McGrath, along the Iditarod Trail in February 2019. And now I am officially on the roster.

I have plenty on my plate to keep me focused this year but as of now, everything is work towards ITI 2019. There is a ton of work and research in the months ahead but this will be an adventure to remember. Stay tuned!

PS: Congratulations to fellow Hrimthurs, Paul Schlagel and Jeff Rock for also getting in. Knowing they will be there will make this experience even better.