Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Staying the Course at Western States

I’m not sure I’ll write a blow-by-blow report from my race at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. So much has already been said about this event over the years. Where could I possible add any value?

As with all ultras, you will never finish unless you have a Why. Going into the race, the big Why was simple: It’s Western States. As the race wore on and things turned south, the Why expanded to not just finishing the “big dance” but also to setting a good example for my son, honoring the training I’d done, and making this whole adventure worthwhile for my family and crew. Quitting was never an option.

And so in the final 300 meters when I was running around the Placer High School track, over 26 hours into this madness (I had thought sub-24 was very realistic going into the race), I talked with my 8-year-old son, who was by my side and holding my hand. I cried. I told him that you never quit, even when you’re being kicked in the teeth repeatedly. You never give up, especially when you know perseverance and resilience will lead you to the promised land. 

It was a moment with him that I will never forget. He saw me suffer. He saw me fight to the finish. He saw me show kindness to my family and crew when the chips were down. He saw me incoherent at Highway 49 but nonetheless moving forward, mumbling “stay the course.” He saw others shower me with love and care, including the race founder himself, Gordy Ainsleigh, at Michigan Bluff. My hope is that one day all of this will help make him a better man. I am his father and in that race I refused to fail him and come up short in my responsibilities as a man who is obligated to mold him into the best man he can be.

In that regard, it was a tremendous experience.

As far as the race itself, the vibe at Squaw Valley Ski Resort (where you start) is electric. The course itself is beautiful. The first 30 miles, which feature the climb up and over the Escarpment and some gorgeous running through the Granite Chief Wilderness area, is alpine running at some of its finest. The second third features the canyons—Deadwood, El Dorado and Volcano. The third section is “mostly” downhill, featuring the fast California Street trail which takes you from Foresthill (mile 62) down to the American River Crossing (mile 78). From the river crossing, it’s mostly rolling terrain to the finish, with a few good climbs mixed in.

The volunteers and aid stations are spectacular. The aid stations are well-stocked with what you need—not just food and drink but also ice, cold sponges and sprayers. The volunteers are helpful and caring. The medical staff, who I’d rather not have gotten to know (but did), are professional and compassionate.

The organization of the race is phenomenal, save a few sections where course markings were a bit sparse. But, then again, I am originally from back East, where we tend to over-mark courses with pie plates, lime and billions of streamers. The sparse markings in areas, such as the long downhill stretch from Robinson Flat to Last Chance and a few turns going up to Robie Point (the latter of which could have been sabotage), never rattled me but it would have been nice to see some more confidence markers.

Western States has built a big, strong community. The community puts this race on, with excellent leadership from the board and the race director, Craig Thornley. Few races have such a tight-knit community. This is what makes Western States unique, in my eyes.

Looking back on it, while the result certainly wasn’t what I’d hoped—I still feel I am fully capable of finishing under 24 hours—I know I ran a smart race. I went out conservatively. At no point was I pushing beyond my limits. What seems to have done me in were the canyons and the silent killer that was heat in excess of 100 degrees (which everyone experienced, of course). I fell well short in my descent of the canyons. By the time I got to Devil’s Thumb (mile 47), I was nauseous and soon after starting vomiting—probably the product of the heat, though I’d been using ice all day long to stay cool. More vomiting ensued at Michigan Bluff (mile 55) and Foresthill (mile 62). In each of those three aid stations, I was laid up in a cot receiving medical attention.

In the descent to the river from Foresthill, I had some good stretches and seemed to be coming back a bit. But by the time Brown’s Bar (mile 90) appeared, I was hallucinating. So I closed my eyes there for 10 minutes and then we got going again. The hallucinations abated and I mostly jogged and walked my way into the finish, seeing a second sunrise for the first time ever in a 100-miler.

As far as what’s next, I don’t know. I have signed up for the Leadville 100 but I am going to give it some thought. Putting myself through this process in every 100 seems absurd to me. And it takes the fun out of it. Why should I sign up for a puke-fest when instead I could race shorter distances, do fairly well and actually have fun? Running 100 miles used to be fun but in every one of them of late I go in with a great attitude only for my stomach to completely go south on me. So at this point Leadville is doubtful and that’s OK. I have finished ten 100-milers, winning one of them, and I am proud of that. Forgoing Leadville wouldn't be quitting; it would be deciding that my running has gone in a new direction. I will never quit running.

In lieu of Leadville, I would instead gun for a fall marathon where I can get re-qualified for Boston. But that decision isn’t final; I definitely realize I need a cooling-off period.

I am indebted to my family and crew for their support: my wife and our son, who are like my heart and soul; my mom and dad, who I’m sure struggled to see me in such shape mid-way through the race; Mike, who paced me from Foresthill to Green Gate; Kenny, who paced me from Green Gate to the finish; and Kenny’s lovely wife, Jonnie, who is a wonderful person and was there the whole way to help. 


Friday, June 17, 2016

Random Thoughts a Week Out from Western States

A few days ago, I crunched the splits from my race at the North Fork 50K on June 4 and, boy, I sure liked what I saw. At mile 20, I was in 18th place out of a field of about 130. From miles 20-32, I ran the 4th fastest split of all the 50K field, moving up 10 places to finish 8th out of 128. The folks who ran a faster final 12 miles were the 1st (4 minutes faster), 2nd (1 minute faster), and 3rd (1 minute faster) place finishers.

This is just more proof that going out conservatively usually works on most courses. By the same token, it also proves that going out too fast in a race usually backfires (which is one reason why I was able to move up so much in the last 12 miles). It all gives me confidence that this strategy will work at Western States, a race that rewards patience. If you don't exercise patience, well, the "Killing Machine" will get you at some point...usually after Foresthill.

So, on race day, in the first third, I will be going out at a relaxed pace. I will do all I can to ignore the hype and instead focus on my own race. In the middle third, the goals will be to keep it relaxed and, above all else, stay cool mentally and physically, because it's going to be hot. As of now, the forecast has Foresthill at 89 degrees and Auburn at 96 degrees. The canyons will be a few degrees warmer. I will have 3-4 water bottles with me. One will be just for dousing myself with creek water and the others will be for drinking.

Approaching the race in this fashion will ideally bring me into Foresthill (mile 62) with strong legs, which are what you need in the last 38 miles when the trail is so runnable and downhill. It's in these final 38 miles, as I've read it, that the carnage is epic and those who went out too fast find themselves in the pain cave and those who've shown restraint can open it up and gain ground. My only hope is that I am not among the carnage! I know that if I run a smart race, I can run well in the final 38 miles.

I don't pretend that the race will go off without a hitch. Problems will arise. I may even puke a few times. I am sure I'm going to find myself quite hot at times. The key will be to stay calm and fix the problems as best as we can. But, above all else, it comes down to having fun. This is Western States.

In the end, I know I trained well. Could I have done a bit more climbing? Yes. But overall I had a good training cycle and put in some good mileage for a guy who works full-time and has responsibilities as a dad and husband. Plus, by race day, I will have put in 11-12 quality sauna sessions.

Speaking of sauna sessions, they are getting easier. This week I've been using the sauna at Lifetime Fitness. Their sauna tops out at 185 degrees and I've put in two half-hour sessions (this week), drinking 60 ounces of water in each. The breakthrough I have made as far as recovering from sauna session is taking an S!Cap beforehand and another S!Cap afterward. I have found that, if I do that, the next day I wake up feeling fine--no washed-out feeling, no headaches, no grogginess.

Another factor in all of this is that I'm experienced. This is my twelfth hundred and I fully intend on it being my tenth finish at the distance. I have big-buckled four times at Leadville, which is not exactly an easy hundred. Also, it's not like I don't have experience in the heat. The 2007 Burning River 100 and 2008 Mohican 100 were no walk in the park. As I recall, both saw temperatures over 90 degrees (along with high humidity).

I wish everyone who will be running Western States all the best. I look forward to meeting the Western States community next weekend and to running the most storied course in all of ultra. Only about 370 of us will have this opportunity and I intend to take full advantage of it, soak it all in, and be grateful. 

I'll try to update my blog one more time before raceday. See you in Squaw.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Heat Training for Western States

With the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run now only 16 days away, I'm in the throes of heat training. As most know, Western States is a very hot race, especially in the "canyons" section, and so it's key to go into the event ready to handle temps well in excess of 100 degrees. I'm coming from Colorado, where we had our signature cool spring. Unlike those coming from other areas of the country, our natural conditions until now (it's supposed to be 90 degrees today) have offered next to no opportunities for legitimate heat acclimatization.

With no real experience when it comes to formal heat training, I have used this great article by Badwater Ultramarathon legend Authur Webb as a guide. I have also sought some thoughtful advice from previous Western States finishers like AJ Wellman (2015 sub-24-hour finisher), Matt Curtis (2014 Grand Slam champ) and Andy Jones-Wilkins (10-time Western States finisher). As such, my heat training has focused on sauna sessions and some maintenance activities like--dare I say--driving home from work in the afternoon with the windows rolled up and vents off (I have been parking on the upper deck to get my car as hot as possible). With the weather in Denver finally starting to warm up, it will also likely involve a few afternoon runs. But sauna sessions are the centerpiece of the strategy as they are widely considered a "best practice" for Western States training (not to sound corporate).

Going into my Western States build up, while I knew sauna time would be a critical aspect, I didn't realize how physically hard it would be. The actual time in the sauna isn't what's so hard; it's how I feel the next day. More on that in a second. When I go into the sauna, it's always with about 50-60 ounces of ice-cold water in hand. And I always make a point to drink both bottles while in the hot box. I try to pace myself so that I'm drinking at an even rate for the whole time in the sauna and take that last sip just seconds before leaving. I also make a point to take an S!Cap afterward to help replace lost electrolytes, and I have found that the S!Cap does make a difference.

How long am I in there? Anywhere from 28-33 minutes at this stage. I originally wanted to build up to a 40-minute session but I honestly cannot conceive of how that might make me feel the next day. Such times as 28-33 minutes in the sauna are way out of the norm when you're looking at the "general population." Having watched a lot of people come in and out of the hot box over the past few weeks (this has offered its fair share of humor, too), I can say that the average session for folks is 4-8 minutes. No one stays in the sauna for a half-hour or even close to it. People have been incredulous when they saw how much I was sweating and asked how long I'd been in the sauna. Never mind what they say when I tell them why I'm doing this. It's all way out of the norm. And so I tell myself that, yes, this should be hard...because it is hard.

As an aside, despite the growth in ultrarunning over the past few years, we should never lose sight of how out of the norm it is to do what we do. It's easy to forget that fact because, for most of us, our friends are also ultrarunners. But the bottom line is that 99.99% of the population has no interest in lining up for an ultra. They cannot conceive of it.

Why am I finding it so hard to sauna train? I have found that the next day I usually struggle with headaches, mild dizziness and general fogginess. Occasionally it feels like a bad hangover. Sometimes it can be draining. The mild dizziness usually clears up in a day or two but it's no fun.

Having spoken with others, it seems this is all part of the process. Heat training is hard and fatiguing and that's why many Western States runners save it for the final stages. I started a week before my taper kicked in and it was hard to balance it all. So I did what I could and now am trying to get to at least 10-12 sessions by the time I'm four days from the race, when it's all behind me. While I have truly loved the build-up to Western States, the sauna training aspect has been much harder than I anticipated. I cannot imagine what Badwater heat training would call for!

If you have any heat/sauna training tips, chime in!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

And That's a Wrap on Western States Training

Well, just like that, the taper for the Western States 100-miler is here. May was a very strong month, and I was able to go into my 3-week taper with a huge (for me) 7-day stretch where I ran 102 miles and climbed and descended a combined 24,400 feet. May saw 370 miles (not including miscellaneous walking). Most importantly, I felt good through all the volume and still feel fresh and alive.

It all ended with Saturday's North Fork "50K." I quote "50K" because it's really a 32.5-mile race--and one of the best such races in Colorado with its friendly, down-home feel, great organization and tremendous post-race picnic food complete with tall cold ones. It seems the Golden Gate Dirty Thirty, which was also on Saturday, is the "in" 50K for this time of year but I'll take North Fork any day of the week as it suits me better. It's a beautiful, fairly fast course, passing through some of the burn areas from the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire as you climb about 4,800 feet (which is a lot less than Golden Gate). Plus, it has some nice descents that are perfect for conditioning the quads.

Except for the fact that I saw a dead motorcyclist on US 285 going home, it was a great day at North Fork. I finished in 5 hours and 21 minutes, good for 8th overall out of 128 finishers. Going into North Fork, the strategy was to run it very conservatively (as in all-day pace) and essentially use the race as an aided long training run. I was able to hold to that strategy through about 21 miles, getting passed by quite a few runners, and then it fell by the wayside a bit when I "decided" to amp up the pace and see how many folks I could reel in.

As we entered one of the burn areas in the late morning, I had a nice view of several runners in front of me. It was at about that time that my iPod turned to Bob Seger's "Shakedown," a great tune from the eighties (I've always been a Seger fan). With the competitive juices flowing and the legs suddenly alive, I picked up the pace and by mile 23 was running sub-7s, absolutely hammering the downhills. I passed, by my count, every single runner that had overtaken me in the first 20 miles and was looking for more. And I was feeling good despite the heat starting to pick up. My legs, after feeling tired in the first 20 miles from a lot of running in the past few weeks, all of a sudden felt light and my turnover was solid. My quads were in great shape. It was time to run.

So in the last 10 miles, I was able to gain a lot of ground and even passed a runner about a 1/3 of the way from the finish line, crossing feeling quite fresh. Zero stomach problems. I continue to wonder at the effects of my sharp reduction in sugar, which I began earlier this year.

Today, all feels good--just some minor soreness in my hips and ankles but otherwise the ship is sturdy. I put in an easy 7-miler this morning, followed by weights and my fifth sauna session. I'm looking to put in 10-12 total sauna sessions. Not really interested in any bank robber suit runs, though I admire the commitment quite a bit. The taper plan is to cut mileage by about 35% each week going into Western States, with very little the week of the race as I super-hydrate.

I've been running ultras for 13 years and it's not every day that you can go into a race feeling solidly good about your training. I feel like this has been a hell of training cycle and so I can line up at Western States feeling confident that I can finish and ideally go sub-24 hours...or much better. My quads are there and the heat training is progressing.

The word that best describes this whole process--from start to race day--is simple: Gratitude. I am grateful for this opportunity.