Tuesday, May 8, 2012

50 miles of the Familiar, 12 miles of unknown

I was tired at mile 6. Six miles into a 62 mile (Later reports would peg it at around 64-65 miles) race my legs felt heavy, my heart beat hard and my mind was already trying to figure out how I was going to push through the low points that were undoubtedly on the way. 

The above paragraph may sound eerily familiar for several folks who I shared the trails with at the Miwok 100k this past Saturday. For those that may be reading this that don’t happen to run, or perhaps run more sane distances on less ridiculous terrain you may be surprised to find that people who run these races do feel tired fairly early on in these types of events. Last Saturday was a bit of an extreme in that normally I don’t feel that blown so early in a long event, but ultrarunning for me is less about trying to figure out how to prevent pain and fatigue and more about how to manage once it inevitably sets in. The gruesome details were requested by one of my running buddies, of which I feel I’m compelled to oblige. So get ready for a read…this is probably going to be my longest blog entry yet.  Before getting to the play by play however I’ll provide a little back story to the event that was about to give me a 350 pound virtual gut check. 

Back in December I ran a 50 miler in the Marin Headlands put on by the North Face that attracted a fairly large gathering of the less than sane, which included some of the top talent throughout the known universe. My previous exposure to the headlands had been mainly in some nice views from Fort Mason, Chrissy Field or the occasional jaunt across the Golden Gate Bridge. This seems crazy now in retrospect given the fact that I’ve probably been in San Francisco on average 8-10 times a year for the past decade. Yes I have some fairly legitimate excuses, the BART doesn’t run there, public transport would take forever, I never rent a car, but in the end it really all boils down to me being too lazy. This will be rectified in the future. (Along with my last visit to Yosemite being 8 years ago….talk about a travesty) In any event, I was astounded by the views on the 50 mile course and told myself that I needed to experience more of them. I also knew that if I was going to bump up to the 100 mile distance that conquering (Surviving) a 100K would give me a psychological edge that would be sorely needed in order to develop the mental callouses I feel I need to suffer through any longer endeavors. What does a mental callous look like? Maybe a cross between a kidney bean and a pachyderm….or cauliflower. A doctor may view it on an MRI and interpret it as brain damage.

So I signed up for the Miwok, given that it fit into my race calendar and also gave me a chance to enjoy the headlands again. The lottery came and went and I was selected. A new course was created in response to some trail closures, which added 2-4 thousand feet of elevation gain along with perhaps a few extra miles. What is an extra 5k when you have already ran 100 you ask? Pure distilled pain….washed down with a cup of sadness, all packed into a punch of awesome. Mix all of the above with some race day temps around 80 degrees (Perhaps approaching or exceeding 90 within the gullies) and a second half that was pretty much completely exposed without a drop of shade and you have a recipe for an epic day. 

This elevation profile resembles an Anime characters hair. Spiky.

I arrived in San Francisco on Friday morning, having awakened at 4 am to catch my flight meant that I arrived quite early and had an entire day to work from a Starbucks before a contingent of runners arrived that I would be staying with in Stinson Beach, the location of the start and finish of the race. My stomach was revolting from the Naked Juice and the Soy Latte’s and I was getting nervous that I was perhaps going to attempt to run a race again with Flu-Like symptoms. (Good old DNF at Orcas) Thankfully a vegetarian wrap packed with black beans and rice from World Wraps calmed my ailing gut and put me in a place where I didn’t feel like I was going to refund everything I had consumed over the past day. Refunding is a horrible way to prepare for a race…I should know…I’ve tried it before. 

After working at the ‘bucks, having consumed a liter or so of soy milk spiced with caffeine I made my way over to Stinson Beach, where I met the rest of a Seattle contingent that was running the and we all unpacked at our place of residence for the weekend, which happened to be a bed and breakfast owned and operated by somebody who should be featured on the show hoarders. The rooms were fine, and the fact that we were a stone’s throw away from the start and the finish made just about anything tolerable, but we all had to do a bit of a double take each time we walked through the “Courtyard” to our rooms. Seriously…there were people staying in a tent on the rooftop of one of the establishments, that had a TV and god knows what else hooked up in it. Somebody funnier than I could base an entire routine around an overnight stay at this place, I on the other hand will only spend a paragraph as I realize now this is getting excessively long and I haven’t even really gotten to any of those “Gory Details” yet. 

Race morning we awoke at around 4 AM, grabbed our drop bags, put on our running gear, I personally took a Vaseline bath in an attempt to decrease any chance of chaffing and walked across the street to the starting area. I immediately lost the rest of my group in the sea of ultrarunning crazy that had coalesced at the state park. I chatted with a few folks, picked up my number, lined up with at the start and before I realized what was going on we were off like a shot out of a red rider bee-bee gun into the cool Marin morning. The supermoon’s slightly smaller brother was setting as we made our way up the first time, dumping more and more orange on the pacific ocean as we watched with a certain wariness…that thing was cool with a soft glow, a burning globe that us Seattleites don’t see very often was set to make what would be referred to by one (me) as a butt blistering appearance.

The climbs in Miwok are brutal steep but I figured I needed to set the tone for the race and really take a bite out of that first one. I did my fun run 400 steps, walk 50 all the way up the 16-20% grade and then settled into the fun rolling cambered section along the coastal trail. We ran through some meadows, some forested areas; there was blessed shade that at the moment wasn’t even really required because quite frankly it hadn’t gotten that hot yet. I surprisingly ran into a Portland runner, Steve that I seem to see at all of my events. We decided to run together down to the first turnaround, chatting away the miles and commenting about how easy the leader, Dave Mackey looked motoring up a hill that we had yet to fully descend. (He was probably already 3-4 miles ahead of us at this point and we weren’t even a quarter of the way through the race) At the turnaround, and all the aid stations for that matter, I kept my spirits up, joked around with the volunteers, thanked everybody who had come out and then put my head down and kept going. I lost track of Steve at the turnaround thanks to a call from Nature and wouldn’t see him again until after mile 50. How’s that for crazy?

Terrible...terrible Stomach knot
So the second hill came and went and I was still feeling pretty good. Up to this point I had done a pretty good job keeping myself hydrated, fed and electrolyzed. (Not a word but whatever) I was pretty much eating a gel every 30 minutes, taking an S!Cap every hour and was drinking water almost exclusively…at least until the Bolinas ridge aid station at mile 20. I made a pretty huge mistake here that seemed pretty innocuous at the time…and ended up paying for it for the next few hours. I ended up filling up one of my bottles with Gu Brew when I probably should’ve stuck with water but worse I decided to eat a Hummus wrap when I had never eaten one during a race before. There was plenty of other stuff there that I had eaten without incident before, but for some reason that hummus wrap looked like a little slice of garbanzo bean heaven wrapped in a tasty tortilla. Yes…it tasted good…and then it proceeded to turn my stomach into what would best be described as Gordian knot. 

So it was that we traversed the same basic route back to Stinson beach. As stated above, I was already tired at this point but enjoyed taking in the awesome views from the Coastal trail. The camber wreaked havoc on my hip flexors but hey, running is supposed to hurt. The descent was awesome. We basically hauled down the Matt Davis trail through the woods to the Stinson Fire Department aid station at mile 26.2. I came in under 5 hours, which meant in spite of my stomach and energy issues I was still on pace to come in around 12 hours. Sadly this pace would not last because up next…

We climbed up to Cardiac via the Dipsea trail. Yeah….that trail. The one with lots of steps. At least it is in the trees though. At this point my run 90% walk 10% hill routine was shot. I think I ran very few uphill’s from this point to the end of the race. That’s pretty normal though when you are being tasked with running up hills with a 15-20% grade. I was hot at this point…but not overheating so the climb wasn’t too bad. I managed to pass a few runners, hauled down the fire road back into the trees  and then took Redwood creek to the Muir Beach aid station. I had almost completely lost my stomach at this point so I attempted to force myself to throw up. Oddly enough I was unsuccessful so I slowed down a bit heading through the hot sections and actually managed to get things relatively under control by the time I hit the aid station. A fellow Seattle runner noted that I looked pretty pale at this point…though I figured that was most likely a remnant of the extremely low patch I was just now getting out of. There were loads of people here both volunteers and spectators that managed to buoy my spirits even though I was starting to fall into a deep, dark, pain ridden cave. I wanted to quit here…but decided I could at least keep going to mile 38.8 at Tennessee Valley. 

The climb out of Muir beach is just…brutal. It’s not the most difficult climb on the course but it is completely exposed and relentless. The lack of tree’s during the latter half of the course means that you can see FOREVER. Unfortunately this means that when you get to the top of a hill…you see runners going up to the top of another hill…and another hill beyond that. I was in full on death march mode now, though admittedly the death march was still around 15-18 minute pace up a giant hill. Not too bad really. I upped my salt intake at this point to an S!Cap every 40 minutes and fell into a routine where I would shoot myself in the face with water every 10-15 minutes. I was losing control of my heart rate on the ascents and as such was just incapable of breaking out into a run until on the flats or the down hills. 

This routine repeated itself for the better part of the next 20 miles. Tennessee valley provided a bit of a shot in the arm…and a sponge in some ice water which did wonders for my heart rate. The nice volunteers also filled my bottles with ice water…of which half ended up in my face and on my head as I climbed out of Tennessee valley (Another walk fest) until the trail flattened out and descended down to the Rodeo Valley aid station. The volunteers had set up all sorts of inspiring signs leading into the aid. Pretty much all of us who rolled into the station requested the same thing…lots of Ice water on our heads…and lots of ice water in our hydration systems. As a bonus one of the folks gave me a Popsicle…which resulted in many “oooh’s” and “aaah’s” from the runners as we ate our cold sweet treats. 

I didn’t linger long though…doing so can lead to disaster. You start thinking about how nice it would be to sit down, your legs start seizing up, your resolve wanes and the prospect of running another 20+ miles just seems ludicrous. Well ludicrous it may be…but I made my decision, set my warp drive to ludicrous speed and made my way down to Rodeo Beach! 

"It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere."
Rodeo Beach was nice…but fairly ridiculous. You actually end up having to run on about a quarter mile on sand…which just comes across like a kick in the groin that late in a race. I was running but was moving slower than my SLOWEST UPHILL WALK. I wanted to shout out in frustration but instead managed a hearty laugh. The absurdity of the situation, having traveled 45 miles by foot only to be done in by a quarter mile section of sand was just what I needed to snap out of another low and prepare myself for ANOTHER CLIMB ON THE COASTAL TRAIL!

More salt…more calories, less stomach issues surprisingly enough as we climbed out of another valley and headed back to…another freaking valley. That’s right…we were climbing up and over more hills to get to another valley which would then result in another climb…to another beach…which leads to another climb! Three climbs to the finish…no problem. I settled into another routine…eyes forward, climb, douse with water, take salt pills, move forward, eat gel, move forward, rinse and repeat. The stairs at the top of the Coastal Climb were particularly fun. I greeted them with another healthy bout of laughter. 

I ran through Tennessee Valley in about 10 hours and 30 minutes. Not a bad time for a 100K but not really on track for a sub 12 hour finish. I recalibrated and figured sub 13 was out as well. By this point it was probably around 80 degrees and the lack of shade for the last 5 hours was causing some serious hurt. I muscled on through though; ditching my now powerless GPS watch in favor of my working track watch ate what seemed like my weight in potato chips (But was probably one 2-3) and then headed out on the road towards the Muir Beach aid station. I stuck with my mantra…just get to the next aid station. 

More climbing up the Coastal trail followed with spectacular views of the pacific. At this point I was pretty comfortable with my pain, had no trouble hiking hard up the hills and seemed to have somewhat recovered from some of my low points in the previous 50 miles. I was taking an S!Cap every 30 minutes now and had pretty much gotten back to the point where my stomach could handle whatever sugar I threw at it. I ended up catching up to Adam, one of the members of the Seattle contingent, who was having some pretty bad energy issues on the climb out of the valley. We chatted for a bit before I decided I needed to take advantage of the energy I had and made a push to the top of the 2nd to last climb. Glenn Tachiyama greeted me near the top, snapping of some great pictures and sending me good vibes as I made my way down to the Muir Beach aid station one last time. It was great seeing him out there…familiar faces always help boost energy levels. 

Muir Beach was awesome yet again. The volunteers did a great job prepping me for the climb up Cardiac, filling my bottles yet again with ice water, dumping cold water on my head, giving me access to whatever food they had. Ultrarunning is just a fantastic sport. Pretty much everybody is out there just trying to help everybody else out and that essence was captured beautifully in all of the aid station volunteers. 

Running out of Muir Beach I ran into Adam again who still seemed to be having some energy issues. I was fairly certain that he would make it at this point though so I gave him some words of encouragement and managed to catch up to Steve about a quarter mile up the dirt road. He and I traded some words of encouragement, walked for a minute or so and then broke into a trot. The end was in sight and I was going to try to push the pace as much as possible while the going was flat. At some point I ended up passing some folks, then stopped for a short walking break, then dropped Steve, then passed some runners again…and so it went all the way to the cardiac climb…where everything almost fell apart halfway up the hill.

And by fall apart I mean the pass out kind. I had eaten a gel about halfway between Muir Beach and the climb…approximately 15 minutes prior to hitting the first steep section. I put my head down, motored on and kept to the shade whenever possible. Much of the water in my hand helds ended up on my head as I was in serious danger of overheating. I ate some more salt pills and thought things were going well until a fit of light headedness threatened to knock me down (and perhaps out). In my state of stupor I was having a difficult time determining what I could do to fix my rapidly deteriorating state. I didn’t quite feel like eating but knew that a big part of this was a lack of calories. Thankfully I had some honey stinger chomps in one of my pockets as I don’t think could’ve handled another gel. I proceeded to tear into them, eating the whole bag in about 5 minutes and felt better almost immediately. I decided not to push it though, so I kept my snail’s pace up to the top of Cardiac. With all the ascents completed I immediately felt as urge of energy and broke into something akin to a run which almost immediately resulted in some familiar crampy twinges in my lower extremities. I hammered another salt pill (My 3rd or 4th in an hour) and tested out the descent. My legs felt fine so I decided to bomb it as hard as I could. Oddly enough I felt fantastic, speeding along, cruising down the Dipsea trail 60+ miles into an epic run. Writing that now seems ridiculous…ridiculously awesome. I turned a corner and ran into some course marshals and hooted and hollered my way to the home stretch. People cheered, I smiled and yelled and before I knew it I was across the line in 13:39:55. One of the race organizers put a finisher medal around my neck and I moved into the party area, chatting with another fellow runner Greg with whom I traded many a conversation with while we yo yo’d back and forth during the race. 

I feel like I lost a fight to this guy and 300 of his best friends
So in summary…the race was awesome, painful, enlightening, challenging and all around epic. The volunteers were awesome, the fellow runners were great and those last 12 (or 14) miles of unknown made for one heck of a day. Marin is awesome…go experience it. Run it…hike it….ride it…do something there because the views alone are worth all of the effort it takes to reach the peaks of the many…many…many climbs. Two days later I feel like I was run over by a pack of Tasmanian devils…and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. 

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