Saturday, April 19, 2014

House of Cards - 2014 Lake Sonoma Race Report

The beauty of ultramarathon running is the juxtaposition -- and swift vacillation -- of community and solitude: utter aloneness for minutes or hours, then the clamor of spectators and aid, and then - just as quickly, aloneness once again.  And that was the only thing swift about this year's Lake Sonoma 50: the speed at which I was whisked between community support and utter solitude. And it was a gift.

But I would've preferred to be near some folks. And up front.

But I was alone: just me, and my thoughts.

Two nights before race day, I had a dream that I was at the Western States lottery.  I did not get in.  And I wept.  I cried so hard in my dream, I awoke, nearly crying.

It was fitting, therefore, as I rolled along, alone, in the later depths of the race, that I found myself thinking about that dream, and about the reality of the day: of coming up short, again, and possibly missing out on the best day of the year.  I thought about the moment I'd cross the finish -- so egregiously far removed the podium that I'd be lucky if the finish area was still standing when I got there -- when I'd see my mom and my supporters:

"I'm, sorry, maybe next year..."

That thought, which recurred several times in the last fifteen miles, was sufficient enough to obscure my vision with moisture and force me to put it away.
****

It's been a fascinating personal journey since last June. After prioritizing speed and paying for it with serious overtraining and an epic crash-and-burn, I committed myself to rebuilding: focusing on true aerobic strength and power, and becoming the best fat-burning machine I could be.  The idea was to build the strongest - and most sustainable - overall fitness possible.

It was a simple plan: run at max aerobic pace only for...a long time: a Maffetone-inspired notion that training at fat-burning pace, however slow that may be, will develop more fat-burning enzymes to allow higher-intensity running with the same energy.  This notion is implicit to all distance training -- build a base, then go from there.  But too often corners are cut (or omitted) in the base-building process. Easy runs may feel easy, but if fat is not used and promoted as fuel, true aerobic conditioning won't happen.

So after Western States, I used the Maffetone Formula to find my max aerobic heart rate, and from the end of July through most of February, that is where 99% of my training was spent.  Using the formula, my estimated fat-burning heart rate was 150.

But there was a problem: I actually wasn't burning much fat at 150.  In fact, none at all.

At first, I made some fitness gains, going from about 7:30 pace down to 6:40 pace at 150 HR.  But then I plateaued, and numerous other events - including a broken heart rate monitor and a flu virus - precluded further monitoring or testing.

Finally, after Bandera, and after testing scores of folks on our metabolic system and grasping the technology, methods and results, I tested myself.  The results were shocking: I was burning precisely 0.0% fat at 150 heart rate.

Even worse, to get a "big chunk" of fat-burning - the desired 30-50% fraction, about which the Maffetone Formula aims for - I had train as low as 105-125 heart rate!!

Ouch.

But it made sense.  In the 180-Formula, there are myriad of qualifiers.  Besides 180 minus your age, other qualifiers include:
  • If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
  • If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.
  • If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180–age) the same.
  • If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.

In my estimation, I had cheated.  I had taken 180 minus my age (35) and - by virtue of "training without problems" and "making progress", I added 5.

However, I was overlooking several factors, and indicators that I was training too high:
  • My allergies - even in the fall and early winter - were worse than ever.
  • I was sick more often in November, December and January than I have the past five years, combined
  • I had the worst flu infection I'd ever had in my life, right before Bandera.
And just like that, a MAF of 130 - or lower - seems pretty reasonable.

So, beginning in mid-February, I committed to a max heart-rate of 130 for all running.  It was tough!  My easy pace immediately plummeted to about 8:00 pace...on a treadmill.  Hills?  Forget it: 12-minute pace, or I was walking.

But I knew - from everything I'd read and studied - that I had to commit to it.  Because I had, by this point, so many examples of other runners - and my own patients - who'd committed to the process of disciplined fat-burning, that took their pure-aerobic pace from embarassingly-slow to insanely-fast.  And I knew, based on how fat-burning affected health and how the alternative - high-intensity sugar-burning - deleteriously affected health, performance, and career longevity.

So, with 8 weeks to go before Sonoma, I was running #slowasshit.

It was a major gamble: could I run that slow, that easy, and still perform well at Sonoma: a favorite event of mine, a race that I've run very well at the past two years, the premiere "old school" ultra in the country, and now, a vital shot at a Western States spot?

*****
I'm a stickler for tradition: for the third consecutive year, I left for Sonoma on Thursday night, lodging in Ashland. I rolled in just before ten o'clock, just in time for a good night message from my good buddy, Chris Vargo!

A typical pre-Sonoma exchange between Chris and I. I was eternally grateful for that tuck-in from Chris' mom, "The Sue"! 
The banter (read: "shit-talk") between Chris and I pre-race was quite a hoot, and was only going to get better.  But more on that, later.

As noted, I slept well - other than my Western States lotto dream - and awoke rested.  My day-before run through downtown Ashland, up Lithia Park, and to Prickly Pete's pasture felt strong, and I relished in the cool, dry, sunny Southern Oregon weather.  After breakfast, I hopped in the car and made my way to Healdsburg.

Once there, I had a bit of business to attend to - a little more shit-talk, this time for The Media. I met up with The Boss at the front desk of the Best Western as folks trickled, including The BGD.  We milled around while Bryon interviewed the legit talent: Krar, King, Canaday, to name a few.

Then it was our turn. What a blast that was! We had some fun shit-talking back and forth - though it took Vargo a bit to "warm-up", but once he did, it was a hoot.

Me, Bryon Powell, and Chris Vargo.  $hit's about to go down!  Photo: iRunFar. 

 


Some obvious Photoshop-ing: how are we the same height? Vargo's like 4'8"! 
Vargo and I pummel one another. 
Photo: iRunFar.com

When we finished, BGD and I chatted with Alicia Shay, who traveled from Flag with Vargo, and Krar for a bit, before heading to the course.

I had a great talk, catching up with BGD, on the way to the the overlook, then hiked out a half-mile and had a seat along the trail.  There, I had another great talk: "to the mountain". I sat there, as I did before Bandera, and talked it out: what my intentions were, my focus, my gratitude and perspective. Any nerves I might've had were put to rest until race morning.

*****
Race morning came quick, but not too early. The race directors do a phenomenal job - and ahead of the curve - at elite runner hospitality. Jake and I were holed up in our own suite on the Soda Rock Winery, just a few miles outside town.

The view from our suite at Soda Rock. "So Romantic!" :-P
The "His & His" robes, ala "Dumb & Dumber", will have to wait...
BGD looking "Buff".
We slept well and had plenty of room - and quiet - to prepare on race morning.

We arrived at the overlook to darkness and a light, misty fog: perfect running conditions.  And, characteristic of the event and Tropical John Medinger's attention to detail, the sun rose just in time for the opening horn.

Lots of familiar faces on the line and the mood was light for what would surely be among the most competitive 50-milers in the world this year.

Flexin' at the start.  Look at all that annoying neon!  Photo: iRunFar.com
"AAAAAAAY!  JAAAKE RYYYDMANNNN!  What's goin' on, man? How you doin'?
Good to see you again, what's up?"  Photo: Meredith.
Then, it was time.

The race...went exactly how it should've gone: tough.

The opening road miles - and the pace set up-front by the Nike BoyZ and others - was remarkably subdued.  Yet, characteristic of the day, I struggled to keep up on the climbs.  My race-nerves sent my HR into the 170s and I had to work hard to relax, breathe deeply, and run easy on the ups to get it in the 160s.

And that would be the theme of the day: slow, sluggish climbs, tip-toeing beyond anaerobic threshold.  All day.

I was probably in tenth place when we hit the trail descent, then gradually relinquished at least a half-dozen places over the next two miles before Island View (31:33).  Thematic of the day, the effort felt strong, but I was a good two-plus minutes slower than a year ago.  But the HR was in the mid-160s - the Yellow Zone - and there was simply nothing else to do.

So I shuffled along.

I had some pleasant chats with several folks, including Jesse Haynes, Josh Brimhall and Brian Tinder - all of whom I'd see later in the day.

Then I was alone.

And I loved it.

The lake shore was enveloped in a shroud of fog all morning. It was utterly peaceful, and the beauty tempered the frustrating sluggishness felt on each of the relentless climbs.  I felt slow and heavy.  But...I felt strong.

The Sonoma Basin wrapped in fog. The view from above Madrone AS. Photo: Meredith.

As I loped along, it occurred to me the folly of what I was undertaking:  "I've done literally NO running on hills at this intensity...for months...what do you expect??"  There was a part of me that believed that my strong aerobic power would supercede that lack of experience, the requisite leg strength, and lactate clearance, necessary to run fast.  But it simply wasn't there.

What I had was essentially a House of Cards: the appearance - or at least the building blocks - of actual fitness, but not the real thing.  And, presented with a challenge such as this course, it wasn't long 'til my limitations were completely exposed. 

But I kept at it, my new mantra was "Slow, but Strong".

I hit Warm Springs AS slow again, in 1:32 - a whopping 8 minutes slower than a year ago.  I must've been dwelling strongly on this notion to miss the gigantic, creepy presence of The Vargo off my left shoulder, because it didn't register in the slightest!  At least I was focused!

Refueling at Warm Springs AS, with to-scale representation of Chris Vargo's gigantic ego.  Well-played Eric Schranz.  Photo: Meredith

"Stop starin' at me, SWAN!"  Photo: Meredith.
I was just behind Brimhall as we hit the aid, and as we left, he asked about the splits:  "VERY SLOW", I spat, when asked about our times compared to a year ago.  He remarked about getting out too hard a year ago; I agreed, but eight minutes?  Ugh.

I shuffled along, and Josh ambled out of sight.

And I was alone again.  More shuffling, but now, some gut-rot. The stomach hadn't taken well to the influx of sugar, which prompted the first of two pit-stops.  Ugh.

Just before Wulflow #1 (48:20, 2:20), I caught a glimpse of Michael Versteeg (who I would later find out is a good friend of one of my favorite "Tall Dickheads", James Madson!).  I would run right behind, then right in front, of him for the next dozen miles.  Having him around helped snap me from my doldrums, and I posted my best (or closest to ideal) split of the day to Madrone #1 (15:04, 2:35).

The Queen was there.  Her face betrays all; she'd be a horrible poker player.  "How ya doin'?".  She knew how I was doing. "Slow but strong", I said, as I pounded the first of several cans of Coke.  I shuffled out.

I heard big cheers only a minute out of the aid station.  The first woman was close.  Of course.

Shuffling up the steep dirt road, I tried to run as much as I could - or at least when spectators were around - but I otherwise hiked.  The HR spiked above 170 and I struggled to keep the legs moving.  My support crew was at the summit and I smiled and waved weakly as I dropped down over the hill.

The descent to the lake before the Big Climb took forever. The gut protested further as I pitter-pattered my way along, and I stopped once again to fertilize. Versteeg floated by and it took until the next aid to catch back up.

By this time, falling so egregiously behind my goal splits, I began to dread just how soon into the climb I'd see the leaders when they doubled back upon us.

That's one of many beauties of Lake Sonoma 50: the double-back, and the first of two critical competition checks.  I was a mere two-thirds up the vertical to No Name when Zach Miller flew past.  Minutes later came Krar, with Vargo and Sage in tow, then King a minute or so behind them.  Seeing those fellas gave my running a spark, yet I continued to struggle up the teasing rollers that littered the approach to No Name.  I came across BGD a few minutes from the lollipop -- meaning he was a good ten minutes-plus in front.  He had a look of focused intensity and blew past so fast all I could get out was, "Execute!"

I hit the Lollipop, which was guarded by several folks, including Tropical John. I tried to bribe my way straight into the aid, but he wasn't having it.  I got past Versteeg and pushed to the aid.

No Name is the halfway point, and by the time I rolled in, I was quite late (55:00, 3:30 - 3:10 in 2013), so it was all I could do to poke a little fun when I saw my good friend Jorge Maravilla there amongst the crowd.  He wisely chose to rest from LS50, but I gave him a little $hit, anyway, for the DNS, before I grabbed a fresh bottle and hit the trail.

The double-back on the rest of the field was uplifting: the constant exchanges of well-wishes, and running past good friends helped buoy the spirits and lighten the load as I shuffled back down to the lake, but once I bottomed out and had to climb my way out, no breath was available for further greetings - a simple wave was all I could muster.

About this time, Emily Harrison, the women's leader, began to reel me in. I'd felt her presence for miles, but here she was.  She got past me about a half-mile from the summit, just in time for the media.

Emily leading me up to the dirt road above Madrone 2 (mile 30). You can't get anything past Connor Curley, whose timely comment really made this photo.  It's "F2" (sort of like "F U"), Connor!  Photo: iRunFar.com

Emily stopped for aid from Ian Torrence at the hilltop and I snuck past, but my lead was short-lived.  After Madrone #2 (47:54, 4:18), she got past me again, seemingly for good.

By the time I got to Wulflow #2 (18:16, 4:36), I was feeling gassed.  I'd been red-lining all day: with the HR consistently in the mid-160s.  My legs had no power.  I was resigned to shuffling it in.

But at least I had entertainment.  As planned, I got out my iPod and put in the buds.  And for the first time all day, I started to have some fun.

Because of alphabetical order, my race playlists always open with this song.  And it's a good one.  While I certainly had nothing to "smack", I danced along with a smile on my face.


From there, on, it was all about making the most of the day: I focused on efficiency: using the hips and pelvis, a strong arm swing, and - my greatest deficit - a quick turnover.  And it worked to keep me moving pretty well. 

I felt OK and, once again, at peace: not simply with my surroundings, but with the day itself: where I'm at -- today, this year, and my place in the community.  I was OK with being slow, being behind, and not being competitive.  But when I began to think about the implications - of missing out on this year's Western States - it was truly sad. I got emotional several times and had to force it down and put it away.

Finally, after nearly five hours, the fog had burned away.  The sun appeared, in full force, and the trail slowly warmed to a simmer.

Or maybe it was the reflected aura of SoCal Boy Jesse Haynes, who came within view just before dropping into Warm Springs #2 (49:52, 5:26).  It was good to see him, and my hearty crew, at the AS, and I felt a surge of competitiveness in my otherwise gassed legs as we shuffled out together. 

My Beer Mile Training Run on Tuesday pays off.  Photo: Meredith.

After the river crossing, Jesse was hiking a lot.  I knew I could get past him and, eventually, I did.  I remember vividly the cramping that began at this point - nearly twelve miles out - a year ago.  I took solace in the fact that, while gassed, at least my thighs weren't seizing.  I got passed Jesse and another fellow ("Red Jersey", who was walking even the flats) and pushed along.

The HR, especially in the sun, was spiking well over 170, forcing me to walk a great deal. I put some distance on Jesse and got out of sight, but the going was slow, and each climb - however small - was punishing to my unprepared legs.  I pushed along, knowing full well the possible consequences of this aggressive workload.

But I was still in good spirits.  The music helped a ton, and when I caught up to Josh Brimhall, I felt compelled to remove one of his earbuds and insert one of mine, so he could hear the solid gold of Pitbull and Ke$ha. A sugar-deprived brain will do some crazy things...

I felt like I was running well, but the splits don't lie: I was nearly ten minutes slower on this section than a year ago.  Yet, as feared, the legs began to cramp as I approached Island View #2, the pivotal final stop. 

Had it  been any other race, I likely would've mailed it in.  But at Sonoma, runners are gifted with one final - and extremely timely - competitive glimpse.  The Island View #2 AS sits a quarter-mile off the main trail, providing for one final out-and-back upon which to lay eyes on any competition - in front or behind - that is close.

"Tough Tommy" Nielsen used to say, "At the end of a race, run like there's a runner three minutes ahead and one three minutes behind".  At Sonoma, there is no need to imagine.

Just as I turned toward the aid station, out came Brian Tinder.  I tried to look tough, strong and fast as I floated past, and - just meters from the aid - I did the same to Emily Harrison.  Once there, I got a final water fill, some Coke and a single gel (they were running low, in large part to BGD who took THREE of them for the final 4.7 miles!), then jetted out, just before Jesse came in.

I was cramping badly by then: first the adductors (both), then medial quads, with hamstrings and calves chiming in, intermittently ("Hey, at least it's symmetrical!").  I ran into Red Jersey just as I got back on the main trail.

I took stock: two runners in front, two runners behind - all within five minutes each direction.  And cramping like crazy.

Last year's Lake Sonoma, as well as Western States, taught me that while cramps seldom go away without stopping, the fuse was pretty long before a blow-up.  So I pushed.  Hard.

I knew better mechanics would decrease cramping, so I all-out hammered the ups: aggressively swinging arms and engaging the abs to help drive up the hills and reduce the adductor load. And, after some inital protests, it worked.  I was OK.  But the heart rate soared above 170 and stayed there.  Was it sustainable?

I pushed, and gobbled the downs with big, loping strides, making legitimately good time.  And, soon enough, Emily was in sight.  I gutted one last gel for good measure and pushed past, knowing full well her speed potential, but noting that her stride appeared to be pretty bottled-up.

The last 4.7 to the finish is phenomenal trail: just enough ups to keep you honest, but fast, rolling, singletrack.  While there are a few choice climbs, it almost seems like it's a net downhill from Island View.  I pushed as hard as I could, but wary of a blow-up, as the cramping worsened.  I was motivated more by staying ahead of Emily than catching Tinder, who couldn't have been more than a minute or two up front.

I hit a Mile to Go with a smile on my face.  And, like a year ago, my playlist ran out.  I flipped threw a few songs 'til I found some rocket fuel:

 I want a pink sportcoat like Pitbull has in this video!

I pushed hard to the finish, hoping I could "yell, Tinder", but it was too late.  I finished strong, not nearly as triumphant as a year ago, but almost as happy.  I popped out the earbuds to take in the applause, most of it coming from my and Jacob's large support group.

Finishing Shot. Trunk alignment is a little wonky, but not bad for 7:24.  Photo: Rachel Ekberg.
I finally crossed the line in 7:24:32, good for 14th place.

I was too damn tired to be emotional as I hugged my mom and thanked the rest of the crew.  I was grateful for their support and I did the best I could do with what I had. 

Hugging it out with mom. I think Tropical John needs some Hawaiian pants.  Photo: Karen May.

I yelled, "Tinderrrr!" but he got away from me.  Next time!  Photo: Karen May.
Jorge was there right away with encouraging words, and it meant a lot to have his support, once again.  He could've crushed it out there, but chose to save it for when it really counts: the last Saturday in June.

Me and the Dark Chocolate, looking fine.  Photo: Meredith.

Me and Dark Chocolate.  I'm flexing HARD, trying to look as good as him.  Photo: Meredith.
I caught up with BGD, who by then was into his second or third beer.

BGD and ME, in one of the worst, ass-out bro-hugs ever.  Weak, dude, weak.  Photo: Meredith.
BGD: "Do these shorts make my ass look big?" 
Sara: "Turn away!  Turn away!"
Photo: Meredith. 
Jacob ran incredibly well at Sonoma.  And the best part is: he's really not that fit right now.  At all, really. But for the first time since I've known him, he's run a complete race, start to finish.  Though so full of faith in the rest of his life, he's often raced without a lot of faith in himself: self-doubts amplified bad patches, causing a lot of inconsistency in how he performed.

But not today.  He executed.  He ran with confidence and faithfulness all day, and that's been the case in the three ultras he's raced in 2014.

In addition to being mentally strong and even, his technical skills have improved significantly: his downhill (and uphill) running has improved and is on-par with his contemporaries (and well beyond mine at this point), and his overall stride is the best I've seen it.

WHEN he adds brute fitness, he's going to be a contender in every race he's entered.  Watch out.  And as usual, I can only hope I can keep up, on all fronts.  

*****
Post-race was the usual Sonoma fanfare: friends and food, sun and suds. Jake and I hung out 'til nearly 5, then hooked up with my family for dinner and more celebrating.  It was a good day.

Got a whole lotta love in this group, showing off the custom shirts Meredith made. 

Some assorted shots from the rest of the weekend:

My support crew from back East (L to R): Mike, Teri, Meredith, and Chris.

A view of Sonoma with the fog lifted.  Photo: Meredith.

He sure cleans up good! And this is at least nine hours into his work day!  Photo: Me (via Meredith).

Sunday's Wine Tasting at Mazzocco.  Tropical John tells me where I can score some primo Olive Oil.  Photo: Meredith.

"...SO HOT right now....OOJ".  Photo: Meredith.

BP: "Think you could drink all that?"
Clarkie: "It'll be gone by tomorrow".
Photo: Me.

*****
The Grades:

Mechanics: A-.  There were few performance brights spots to this year's race, but my stride was terrific.  I'd put in a ton of work with my PT, Mike Baum, in February, once and for all(?) re-establishing my trunk stability and improving my push-off on the right hip.  It wasn't perfect, but it was the most symmetrical my stride has ever felt in an ultra.  A big silver lining in a gray race.

Pacing: A-.  I could do no better than I did.  I toed the Red Line all day and, only when I knew I could survive, blasted beyond it.  For the first time ever, I ran all day with a HRM.  The details:

Numbers don't lie.  I was tip-toeing that line allll day. 
My anaerobic threshold has been measured at 158-162.  That I averaged 165 for nearly seven-and-a-half hours - and pushed it to 172 over the last five miles - is remarkable, and - I think - an indicator of exactly how hard I can push at this distance and duration.  Any harder and I likely blow up much worse, and cramp much earlier. 

Fueling: A-.  Fueling was solid, and energy consistent all day.  My stomach did rebel early but rebounded.  It's tough to get used to sugar when you so rarely have any (and really, zero in training). My approximate fuel intake:

- 32 oz of honey water (6% solution - so about 200 kcal)
- ~10 gels (1000 kcal)
- 3 cans of coke (400 kcal)
- two small banana chunks (50 kcal)
TOTAL: <1700 calories

This is pretty terrific: 1700 calories for 7.5 hours of running: just over 200 cal/hr.  I never felt like like I was "down" because of either water or calorie deficit.  I felt even all day, and that - I feel - is a testament to my enhanced fat-burning, even at this high intensity.

Mental Toughness: A-/B+. I ran as strong as I could, and I pushed hard at the end.  I take a lot of pride and optimism that I can still hammer with the best of them, even when I'm not well-trained.  My :45 split over the final section is on-par with the majority of the top ten (outside Krar's completely insane :38 he threw down trying to catch Miller).  But lulls and slow-downs mid-race were costly to the clock.

Joy: A-. Though not up to my potential, I felt a lot of joy out there.  I forced myself to be happy.  What really kept me going - especially as the slow splits compounded - was thinking about Terry Rhodes.  Terry is a fixture in the NorCal ultrarunning community.  Though I've never met her, she and her husband John have been an inspiration to me since I first saw them on "Race for the Soul", the 2001 Western States documentary (where it is noted, famously, that they "met on the trail, got engaged on the trail, and were married on the trail"!).  She's so incredibly positive and joyful during that race.

Terry Rhodes with - as always - John in tow - at an unknown race.  Photo (gleaned from the FB account of): Chihping Fu.
Just days before Sonoma, Terry experienced a freak injury while vacationing in Mexico, resulting in a serious spinal injury. That, and my recent experience working with inspirational neurological patients a week ago in Portland was more than enough to be grateful for the gift of running fifty miles - and all those folks out there in support of me.

I'm happy to report that, despite the gravity of her injury, Terry is doing well and - "Slow, but Strong" - recovering! Awesome! 
*****
It didn't take long before The Question arose: "Are you gonna run Ice Age?".  It's the final Montrail Ultra Cup qualifying race, the Last Chance.

And, of course, I said, "No".  To be asked that so soon after finishing fifty miles is like asking someone if they want to go to another party when they've got a raging hangover.  No way.

But now?  I'm interested.

While I believe things are meant to be, I also feel like the clock is ticking, and life is short: you have to go get what you want, and risk failure.

That said, the next week will be telling: how quickly I can recover and, far more importantly, can I get in the requisite fitness - namely hard, rolling trail running at threshold - to have a chance at Ice Age.  That a couple of fast sonofabitches (hint: their names rhyme with "Glitter" and "Fart-Hurt-y") have recently been added to the start list makes the task even more daunting. 

I will make my decision in a week.  But whatever happens, I'll be there.  I won't miss it. 

*****
HUGE thanks to my many supporters:
  • to John Medinger and Lisa Henson, for the extreme hospitality and support all weekend long.
  • to sponsors Pearl Izumi and my newest supporter - Portland's own Trail Butter!  This is simply phenomenal stuff - 100% natural, high-fat, low sugar, perfect fuel - that I first came across a year-plus ago at Hagg Lake 50K.  I'm ecstatic about what they have to offer, and their generous support of Team Trail Butter!  Check it out!
Great stuff!  Thanks for the support, Boggess Brothers! 
  • and to my incredible friends and family, who go to great lengths to support my running and the community.  Thank you!  
See you...soon?...

Monday, January 13, 2014

Lost Opportunity - 2014 Bandera "50K" Report

How I spent my New Year's Eve.  An omen of things to come. 

When a person approaches their physical limitations, a mental chess game occurs, where the brain must reconcile the extreme demands placed on your body, versus the current integrity of the system and the potential reward for that effort.  It is a law that governs all activity, but is especially applicable to running 62+ miles through rock-strewn, cactus-laden desert.

That said, I'm convinced that if dropping out* does not cross a runner's mind each time they race, they're simply not running their hardest.

(*or somehow relenting in other ways, such as slowing dramatically, or resting at aid stations)

However, there comes a time in every race, beyond that chess game, when you make the decision to go all in: when commitment is total, you buy in - body, mind, and soul - and you push with everything you've got. 

I live for that moment; those are the those rare, special moments that - if lucky - happen a handful of times a year.

But to get there, you have to suffer, you have to endure; you have to be able to get to that place.  And to get there, you need proper preparation, patience, and more than a bit of good luck. 

*****
My training in preparation for the Bandera 100K was specifically aimed at that commitment.  Since late-July, I have done next to no speed work.  Instead, I went back to the aerobic drawing board, focusing on absolute aerobic strength - power - with long, easy, restorative runs: the type of work that I did so well in 2011 that set me up for my terrific 2012 campaign.

After three solid months of aerobic power, I began to run hard - with a purpose.  Instead of arbitrary track and tempo work, I hit the trails: tempos and intervals, all on the trails, and all at the end of long runs.  The purpose was to lubricate the commitment switch: fatigue the system, the force it to run hard.

The results were striking: long runs of 3-5 hours, with 30-60 minute hard-charging finishes.  I was shocked with how strong these runs felt, and how fast I could run, despite the lack of conventional speedwork (or mid-run fueling!).

I ran big miles in December, as I did in 2011, but nearly all at low-intensity.  After a terrific work-out race on the 14th, I felt strong and ready for Bandera.

*****
Logistically, I would replicate the pre-race schedule from 2012: travel back to Wisconsin for the holiday season, rest there for a week-plus, then travel directly to Texas.  This plan worked beautifully last time: I was able to have a relaxing, enjoyable time consisting of easy running, spending time with friends and family, and resting. 

Tux Selfie at my cousin' John's wedding.  I made that $#!t look good.

Action shot of the groomsmen and ushers.

But from the get-go, those plans began to unravel.  After a family wedding in northern Minnesota, the bottom absolutely fell out of the thermometer - and my body, with it.  Temperatures plummeted below-zero, making for miserable mileage back in Wisconsin.  But I pressed on with the big mileage (12-18 miles per day), knowing I had but one more week of work - and limitless rest ahead.

Sunday morning in Duluth, MN.  Cold as hell. 
On Monday night before New Year's, I met one of my best friends for a night run in our hometown.  The temps were below zero, but winds were calm.  It was a great run that allowed us to catch up for the first time in months.  While we ran for over 45 minutes through the quiet darkness, I failed to warm-up in the slightest.  I felt frozen, fatigued, and..."off", but I chalked it up to fatigue.

That night, when I went to sleep, I dreamt that I was really sick.  But when I awoke, it wasn't a dream.

I was sick.  Really sick.

Since changing my diet to include high volumes of raw vegetables and fruits, and cutting processed foods five years ago, I rarely get sick.  Often, a virus will sneak up on me: I'll have an "off day" at work, then realize, "Oh, crap!  I guess I'm sick!", only to feel 100% the next day.

When I awoke on New Year's Eve, there was no doubt: I felt  f#@&ing terrible.

I canceled plans for New Year's Eve, and hunkered down, anticipating a down day, maybe two. 

That sickness - undoubtedly the flu, which hammered the Twin Cities area that week - knocked me flat-out for a week.  The fever was so bad that my whole body hurt, and it was all I could do to lie next to my mom's gas fireplace for hours at a time.  Running was absolutely out of the question; even if it wasn't zero degrees out, I didn't have the energy to leave the house, let alone exercise.

My cocktail of choice on New Year's Day.
The fever lasted for six days.  I ran again for the first time on Sunday, January 5th: a mile-and-a-half run cut short because my toes went painfully numb. 

It.  Sucked. 

There would be no enjoyable morning runs, or socializing with friends and family.  Even reading a book was too painful, mentally.  Instead, I intermittently zoned in a out of consciousness, especially since sleeping at night was made difficult by stifling congestion and overall claustrophobia from the blankets required to keep the chills away.

I looked on the bright side: "At least I'm getting this out of the way now".  I thought I had plenty of time to recover - and the off-work time to fully rest - so I could be 100% for Bandera.  But as the illness dragged on, into the next week, the clock was ticking.  I did several short runs on race week, but they were either in breath-stealing cold -- I ran a single mile at an air temperature of -23F (wind chill -50F?) on Monday -- or in the ultra-dry air of the indoor track - neither of which were amenable to a sore throat and irritated lungs.

A little easy running at the Knowles Center in the WS 2013 vintage Pearl Izumi N2's.

Getting some mileage in with Evan J the Tuesday before race day.
On Wednesday night, I did my final cold-weather run, in "luxurious" zero-degrees  conditions, and I coughed for an hour afterward.  But the fever had abated and I felt rest and ready to go.

*****

We flew from Minneapolis to San Antonio on Thursday morning.  A special treat was having my great friend Jimmy - a veteran of the '12 and '13 WS campaigns - actually fly our plane from MSP to SAT!  Very cool, and a first for him to have friends or family on one of his flights!

Jimmy in the cockpit of his CRJ. 

Jimmy showing his versatility in fixing the overhead bin door above my seat.
An action shot of me, my mom Meredith, and Jimmy from the cockpit of the CRJ, upon landing in San Antonio.
Getting into San Antonio was a breath of fresh air.  Literally.  To feel and smell life-giving warmth and moisture in the air was uplifting. I got my own car rental and headed to central San Antonio to run.  In '12, I found a fun little urban playground - Brackenridge Park - filled with fun, undulating zig-zagging single track.  I went back there in '14.  The temps approached 70 degrees; so glorious was it that I ran shirtless, zipping up and down the short, steep hills, conjuring the steep, rugged hills less than two days away. 

From there, I drove west to Bandera and convened with my mom and her friend Teri at a vacation rental two blocks off the main drag.  We had a relaxing evening, and I slept well.

Assorted images from Bandera, Friday morning.




 On Friday, there was the usual pre-race nerves.  Anxiety has been a big issue for me in the past year-plus; it smothered me prior to Western States and my goal for 2014 is to better manage it.  It begins by managing expectations, but it also has to do with setting the mind and spirit in the right place, prior to the race.

Mark Allen is a huge inspiration and role model for me as an athlete.  In a recent blog post on his coaching website, he talks about pre-race preparation and the importance of "having a conversation with the mountain".  That idea - of talking it out with the course - was a phenomenal one.

So, on Friday afternoon, I drove to the Hill Country State Natural area to check in and get in a warm-up jog.  Last time, I ran the first mile of the course; this time, I decided to do the last mile.  I ran uphill to the plateau of the last climb.  Then, at the precise point where I passed D-Bo in 2012, I hiked off trail a bit, into the scrub.  I had a seat on some rocks, and "talked to the mountain".

I talked about the importance of listening to my body - and the mountain - and only taking what it would give me in the first lap; to be patient and composed early; to be confident and strong in the middle sections, and only in the last third would I truly compete - as I had done in 2012.  I talked about the importance of gratitude - of this opportunity to run amongst old friends, to meet new ones, and to explore my own limits.  Lastly, I talked about keeping perspective: the reality that whatever happens tomorrow - great or not - I am lucky to have a terrific life that will scarcely change either way, regardless of the outcome. 

Then I ran back down the mountain.

I felt at peace and ready to run.

That night, I had one bit of business: I drove across town to Camp Terranova.  Super-Crew Meredith, my good luck charm from the '12 race, agreed to help crew me, in addition to Paul.  I gave her a couple bottles and my water and honey mix.  We chatted a bit before I headed back to the house for dinner and an early bed.

The curse of the Number 1 Bib.  Photo: Meredith.
 *****
I slept well on Friday night; a rare gift.  I was up at 5 and out the door by 5:45, and parked at the course by 6:15.  I had a great dynamic warm-up and easy jogging before the sunrise start.  I finally ran into Jorge at the start line: he was jacked up and ready to go, in classic "Mr. Wonderful" fashion.  I was my usual subdued self.  I gave a quick greeting to Brian Condon, a fellow UW-La Crosse graduate and cross-country runner from my PT school days.  David Laney bounded about on those 2:18 marathon legs, and Chikara Omine stood on the start line, hungry for more than just three dozen Krispy Kremes.  RD Joe Pruisatis counted down to zero, and we were off. 

Morning at Hill Country SNA.  Photo: Meredith
Meredith helps get my USATF ID on right.  Photo: Casie.
Ready to go.  Photo: Meredith.

The Start Line.  Game faces.  Photo: Casie.
We're off.  Photo: Miles Ellis.
I was shocked at how easy things went out.  We ambled along the 600m of flat, wide double track, a whole group of fellas, including a few unknowns.  Jorge and I talked briefly, pre-race.  I told him about the "typical" huge drop-offs from the first to second laps: commonly >30 to upwards of 60 minutes slow-down, and I talked about the importance of running easy and pushing the second lap. 

As we hit the narrow, rugged single track of the first climb, the field strung out: Terranova surprisingly right up there beside Laney, who seemed remarkably conservative.  Condon and Jorge were just ahead of me up that first climb.

My focus on the first lap would be as much aerobic discipline as possible: conservative climbs, then hard downs and focused flats.  As such, I fell back a bit on each climb - even as Jorge power-hiked ahead of me.  But instead of easily catching up on the downs/flats, I struggled to maintain contact, as my legs felt flat and heavy.  By the time we approached the second climb, I fell back and lost contact with Jorge and the rest of the field.

I would see no other runner the rest of the day.

I felt relief in being alone to run my own plan; however, I was a little anxious about hitting the desired splits.  I wrote my '12 splits - good for a 4:00 opening lap - on my hand and I was determined to hit them. So you could imagine my dismay when I hit Nachos AS (5.5mi) over two minutes slow.  I got a quick bottle fill, then took off again.

After the undulating opening section that featuring two substantial climbs, the second segment to Chapas AS (~11 miles) is fast, forgiving trail, ripe for fast, easy running.  But my legs felt heavy, as if I was already on my second lap.  It was difficult to get them moving, but I hunkered down and focused on form: hip hinge, opening the pelvis, strong elbows.  I moved along.

My legs perked up a bit at times, but otherwise stayed flat.  With my inability to cruise the flats, my plans for an aerobic first lap were unraveling.

I hit Chapas another full two minutes slower than '12.  I was now four minutes down, but I didn't panic.  A seamless aid transition, thanks to Meredith, left me with two full bottles and a packet of S!Caps without breaking stride (sorry aid folks, but E!Caps and S!Caps aren't even close to the same: you might as well call those "I Can't Believe It's Not S!Caps")

Chapas AS (Mile 11): Meredith Terranova gives me a quick bottle and S!Cap fix like a champ. 
I already look like shit.  Photo: Meredith
Chapas to Crossroads #1 (~15 miles) is even more runnable: mostly flat, smooth, buttery singletrack nearly the whole way.  But I continued to struggle.  I felt so heavy, almost achy, everywhere.  The D-word began to creep into my mind.  But as I shuffled along, I still felt strength: my legs wouldn't go, but I felt like I could run that pace all day.  "I won't slow down", I told myself.  I thought if I could just grind that pace all day, unrelenting, I could still come back.

For some reason, the section to Crossroads was shortened.  Although I was noticeably slower, my split into Crossroads #1 (40:xx) was 4 minutes faster than '12.  Suddenly, I was "on pace".  Another quick aid-less station bottle exchange and I was off again, buoyed by the notion that I might still hit close to 4:00 for the first 50K.

The section to the Three Sisters was desolate.  I saw no one as I ran away on the doubletrack, then onto the steep, rugged, sotol-crowded "trail" up the namesake triple-climb.  I felt clumsy and weak on this section, yet the energy was solid.  There was hope.  I shuffled my way through the ridiculous sotol plants and hit the 50K runners as the trail gave way to doubletrack again. 

I continuously checked my watch, approaching, then exceeding my '12 split of 37 minutes.  Ugh.  I finally hit Crossroads #2 at 41:xx. "How could I be a minute a mile slower?", I thought. Meredith was gone, and Teri had my bottles - another bad sign.  Deflated, I continued on.

Fueling was good: I guzzled the honey water, which tasted great, and chased it with water.  I drank an average of 2/3 of each bottle between each aid station.  I didn't have to pee, yet felt like I could.  I was neither thirsty or low.  I just felt...heavy.

Things really began to unravel after Crossroads 2.  The trail was littered with 50K runners and I struggled to get past them.  Not because they wouldn't let me pass, but because I was so heavy, so slow, that I struggled to reel them in. 

My whole body began to ache.  My head throbbed.  It was warm and sunny - nearly 70 degrees - but I felt cold. 

Sickening.  I was so done.  It was over.

I shuffled along toward Last Chance.  My body was shutting down.  But I was committed to getting back to the start.  My section to Last Chance - normally a brisk 33 minutes - was over 40 and included several walking spells. 

Hitting Last Chance I was shocked to see my mom and Teri there, along with Dave James, cheering me through.  I should've dropped right there, but mentally, I hadn't quite wrapped my head around it, and the thought of walking out of that aid station, then another "ride of shame" to the start/finish was out of the question.

I refused bottled or aid, and shuffed on to the last section.

Any doubts about dropping were completely erased on the double climb and descent to the finish. I felt terrible.  My legs were shutting down completely and I found myself walking down the rugged, ridiculous technical rock characteristic of this section.

As I shuffled along, I had flashbacks to '12 - when I first saw D-Bo on that first climb, aggressively gobbling up the rocky trail, methodically reeling him in - while cramping.  There'd be no such glory today, only memories.  Finally, finally, I hit that final plateau, when I rushed past him and plummeted down the hill. 

This time, I picked my way slowly, nearly tripping several times.  Finally, I bottomed out, and shuffled to the start/finish. 

It was packed with spectators.  Lots of cheering for Bib #1 that was wholly undeserved, and unwelcome.  Teri offered bottles, I waved them off.  I crossed the mat and asked for Joe. 

I turned in my chip.  Done. 

*****
I felt just miserable.  I laid on the grass, in the pure sun of the day, feeling achy and cold.  Moments later Fernando, Jorge's friend, came in.  Shortly after, Queen Meghan, having a great day. 

I didn't stay long after that.  I was angry, utterly disappointed.  I wanted out of there. 

I drove the half hour back to the house.  I showered, ate a bit, and laid around.  I watched the race unfold via Twitter.  Jorge was nailing it.  It was hard to watch.  I wanted him to run well, but I wanted to be there with him.  "F#@% that, I'm not going back!" quickly turned into, "F@#%, I gotta go!".  I dragged my ass out of bed and got in the car.

I made it back with minutes to spare before Jorge charged the finish line in record time: 8:02:27.  Most notable was how he did it: his 3:48, 4:15 (+27) is the best turnaround in the history of the race.  Laney wasn't far behind (8:07), and Chikara ten minutes behind him.  That trio will be joining Paul Terranova - who came in a distant forth - in toeing the line in Squaw Valley in June.

I stuck around and chatted with the guys, namely getting some details from Jorge about his day.  I'm so proud of him.  I know he didn't have to the 2013 that he wanted to have in the major ultra races, so to see him storm Bandera, take the win and the course record, was a major statement and progression in his career.  He deserves that prize. 

Then, after Paul came in, I took off and headed back to see the family. 

Jorge wrapping up the win and CR.
Me and The Champ.

Jorge and David Laney, 1 and 2.  Not Pictured: me, taking third...

The Terranovas all smiles after another successful campaign.  Paul should not let Gary Gellin know what his splits were.

*****
In many respects, this entire trip was a utter disaster: instead of a relaxing, enjoyable time with friends and family, I spent the bulk of it in dogged sickness, miserable, bored, and lonely.  I hardly saw any friends, and my family time was truncated (indeed, I got my own brother sick, so that, once I was starting to improve, he was miserable).  I barely ran, I didn't relax.  And I missed the hell out of my girlfriend, who was two thousand miles and - at times - felt lightyears away. 

But, in retrospect, I feel tremendous gratitude for the experiences I did have: I got to spend a bunch of great time my with nephew Evan J (including some track and football last Tuesday) and niece Josie (I have the "uncle record" of >10 minutes holding her without intense crying - on either of our parts!).  I had a couple important conversations with my mom and sister.  And even Chelsea and I processed some really important issues during that time.  Indeed, more was accomplished than I realized at first glance.

But the best treat was meeting my mom's half-brother - my "half uncle"! - Miles and his wife and daughter.  They drove down to the race and spent the weekend with us.  For me, focused on the race, this was a bit of an afterthought going into the weekend, but it turned into the highlight of the weekend.  He's a great guy and I was shocked, flattered, and incredibly grateful for his encouragement and warmth towards me and my efforts on Saturday.  That, and yet again, there was another group of folks who've never seen an ultra who left that day, touched and impressed by the special-ness of the experience. 

My mom and her half-brother, my Uncle Miles. 

The family!  L to R: Leslie, OOJ, Meredith, Miles, Casie.  Photo: Teri.

The faithful cheering crew, waiting at Chapas AS (L-R): Teri, Casie, Miles, Meredith.  Photo: Leslie.

So not all was lost.  As the dust settles on the race, and this trip, I am left searching for important lessons and things gained from the rubble of lost opportunity.  The time spent with those folks - my family - stands out the most right now. 

The Grades

Mechanics: B/C.  Very mediocre.  I felt left hamstring tightness early, but was able to self-correct.  I felt like I was using my hips and arms well, early.  But in the last ten miles, when the body shut down, so did the stride.  It was rough.  Post-race, my right calf and ankle were stressed, and my left hip and adductors over-worked.  Clearly my right hip extension was off.  Again.  (In retrospect, I feel like my old right foot favoring has returned.  Damn.)

Pacing: N/A.  Irrelevant.  I listened to my body, and I was slow.  Then I got really slow.  If anything, I should've DNF'd five miles earlier. 

Fueling: A-.  With terrific crewing from Meredith (and Teri), fueling was seamless.  Overall, for 50K, I took only one bottle of Gatorade as aid from any of the five aid stations, an all-time low of external aid for a big-time ultra.  Felt no low-points whatsoever on the honey-water mix.  No gels, no food.  I took two S!Caps, chewing both.  I finished a bit low on fluids, but I stopped forcing fluid in the last seven+ miles.

Mental Toughness: B-.  Not great.  I tried to stay positive and make the best of a failing system, but there was no overcoming it.  On the plus side, I controlled pre-race anxiety really well and was composed, early.

Joy: C-.  Not great.  Very little to be joyful about, but I avoided a flat-out failing grade by returning to the finish to cheer on the top four guys.  That was, by far, the hardest part of the whole day.

Worst of all?  I'm off the JW Christmas Card List, again!  I wonder how many results in a lifetime ban? 
 *****
Closing Thoughts...

Logistically speaking: now what?

Of course, several post-race conversations centered around how else to get a Ticket:
  • Sean O'Brien?  No way: too fast, too soon.  
  • Rocky Racoon?  A hundred-miler in three weeks?  That's a real stretch.  
  • Sonoma? The most competitive race of the spring? Wishful thinking.  
  • Ice Age?  Three weeks after Sonoma, and in May?  It smells of desperation...but maybe.
But, maybe I need to truly be OK with not racing Western States: to give back, work medical at Michigan Bluff, or pace.  Give something.  Either way, I feel compelled to accept what happened this weekend and commit to the long-term: to resting, regrouping, and giving my best efforts going forward in '14, wherever that may be. 

The immediate plan (subject to change):
  • Two to three weeks off of formal run training
  • Spend time focusing on other areas of my life (my relationship, work, being a better partner, brother/son/uncle)
  • One week completely off of any exercise (other than yoga)
  • Resume light strength training (from which I've already rested the past two weeks) in one week
  • Resume swimming and light cycling in the second and third weeks


As for my racing?  I don't know where I stand.  It's so difficult to fail yet again at a major race; to again feel left out from what the rest of the fellas are doing.  It touches old wounds for me, and it makes me question, once again, whether or not I'm good enough to run with these guys, to be mentioned in the same breath as the Maravillas and Laneys of ultrarunning. 

Clearly, my role as a high-level competitor in the ultrarunning community is undoubtedly finite as I age and races become more and more competitive, but is that chapter already over?  I sure hope not, but days like these make me truly question that.  

But, as my Grandpa told me over the phone on Saturday, "Well, SHEEEEIT, JOEY!  You gotta take the bad with the good!" 

Wise words.