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.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Frozen Trail RunFest 50K Report

Initially, I was not going to post a report on this event, because I did not consider it to be a true race.  Its purpose was to be a key, final long run before Bandera 100K in January.  However, because it was a dress rehearsal for Bandera - and because it turned out very much like how I'd like Bandera to unfold - it bears processing and reflecting.  And sharing!

To preface: this is a local race.  In fact, it's the closest ultramarathon to Eugene: only a few miles outside the city limits, at Buford Park.  Most people refer to the name of the butte, Mt Pisgah.

Pre-Race

It has snowed – quite epically – the week prior: nearly eight inches in the city of Eugene, alone. Big snows are rare: however, the fact that temperatures plummeted to single digits and below for days after was what made it truly epic. Schools were cancelled for five days. As for me, a dormant “Midwestern Snow gene” expressed itself in me, and I ran 93 miles in the six days of snow cover before the rains and warmer temperatures eroded away the bulk of it.

By race Saturday, the vast majority of snow was melted in Eugene, and Buford/Pisgah is only a few miles to the east. Yet, upon arrival of the start/finish on the west side of the butte, the parking lot was still covered in snow and ice. Temperatures hovered just above freezing.

However, I was prepared. While the Pearl Izumi E-Motion line – particular the N-Series Trail shoes – are the best hybrid trail shoe I've ever worn, conditions such as these required a bit more. I had a pair of Salomon Speedcross that have the unique combination of one of the most aggressive, two-dimensional treads I've ever seen – featuring a smooth undersole with ¾-inch wide, ¼-inch deep chevrons – as well as being unusually light (about 10-11 ounces). They were the perfect choice for the snow and mud before us. The ice, on the other hand, was another story.

On top of that? The usual Olive Oil layering. With temps in the 30s, I went with both upper and lower body covering. For up top, I went with the highest quality: Twin Palms Olive Oil, courtesy of Tropical John Medinger and Lisa Henson. A thick, lustrous coat covered my arms, shoulders, face and neck. As I blew through several ounces, I decided to go with a lower, supermarket grade for the legs.

The rest of me featured Pearl Izumi compression shorts with sidepockets, the Team issued P-I tech shirt and shell jacket, and, of course, my white P-I visor, the same one I've worn in almost every ultra I've ever run.

As stated, the RunFest was intended to be a final long run workout as well as dress-rehearsal for all things Bandera, including pacing and nutrition. The pace plan for this 50K, four loop course was the run the first three loops (roughly 24 miles) fully aerobic (or under my ventilatory threshold of 160 bpm), then go very hard in the final loop. Each loop featured about 800-1200' of gain, but the final loop included the only bottom-to-top summit of Mt Pisgah – a fitting way to end the race.

As for nutrition, I've been consistently low-carb/high fat for the bulk of 2013, yet it's only been since this fall that I've truly felt a significant shift in my energy demands. Previously, I've taken upwards of 300-400 calories per hour during most ultras. But now? I hardly feel any need for fuel at all, especially for aerobic runs under four hours. The Three Sisters Circumnav in September – 50 miles in 9h40, with zero calories – was evidence that, if kept aerobic, I needed no sugar, period. The experiment would be just how much energy would be required to sustain a hard pace shift I had planned at the end.

I decided to experiment with the Maffetone honey/water mix recipe: about 20-25 grams mixed into 16oz bottles. I prepared four: one for each loop. Should I drink them all, this would amount to 100-125 calories each.

The roads were ice-slick and the race parking lot – where the start/finish was located – was covered in crusty snow and ice, a prelude to what lie ahead of us. I parked my truck near the course and flipped open the tailgate, where I kept the fuel bottles.

Some light jogging, stretching and drills filled the time before the luxurious 9AM gun – a critically late start time, which allowed for some ice to melt as the day wore on. The field was small – perhaps only fifteen, but it was a merry bunch.

Start – Lap One

The opening stretch for all four loops featured the same three mile section: a brief flat across the road, followed by a 300' climb, a gradual descent (of all 300'), then a wide double track road/trail that wraps through the Buford Aboretum.

Nearly all but the road crossings in this early section were ice-covered. At the gun, I settled into aerobic pace on the initial climb and was quickly passed; another guy was in tight behind me and the three of us ascended the initial loop.

And...that's how it would stay. For 24 miles.

The Leader – Josh Zielinski, of Salem – gradually pulled away over that first lap, as we picked our way through the high-and-tight iced-over single track, down to the ice-covered mud sections of the Arboretum. The footing was truly tricky, trying to determine if either ice or mud was preferential. Thankfully we had four times through this brutal section to help figure it out.

As Josh pulled away, the fellow behind me, who turned out to be a young guy named Walker Augustyniak – a former South Eugene/U of O walk-on – stuck reliably in tow. This was a bit disconcerting at times for me, especially in an ultra, where one is so used to running alone near the front. It was good practice in staying relaxed and composed, as having someone that close – yet never drawing even or passing – has a way of making a guy anxious.

Conditions improved only slightly as the course rounded counterclockwise to the south end of the butte. This is to say, the ice and snow was more crunchy and stable. However, this quickly ceded to a 600m dirtroad out and back to the mid-loop aid station (mile 4.x?). This road, typically solid gravel, was completely covered in snow and ice without a bit of respite. Josh was out of sight as Walker and me headed out on the lolli stick. The one positive with this course feature was getting a bead on the leader. He was about a minute up on us as we hit the aid station (30:40), touching the “AS Garbage Can” as a way of tagging in. Neither Walker or I stopped for aid here, in any of the three goes 'round.

And so it went: back through the ice, and around the Base Loop One, which rolled along the lower – but egregiously muddy and narrow – Trail Four around the shaded northeast corner of Pisgah. I took my time, though I could tell at times that I was pushing that anaerobic barrier. Things were smooth sailling 'til we were deep in the woods and came across an unmarked intersection. I chose to go right and ran for about 200m before feeling like we make a mistake, so I – and Walker – 180'd and headed back and uphill, which was the correct path. Walker and I chatted a bit about the mistake – and whether the Leader had done the same – and quickly informed the water aid station on the shoulder of Pisgah of the oversight.

We bombed down the hill the mile+ back to the start/finish, through intermittent snow and slick ice. I quickly tagged in and out of the start/finish and scurried over to my tailgate for a second bottle of honey water. Walker might've stopped – I'm not sure – because he briefly disappeared, only to catch back up on the ascent to lap two.

Lap Two

Lap two was more of the same: the same uphill and ridgeline ice, the same snow and mud doubletrack through the Arboretum. Walker and I picked our way through it once again, with no sight of Josh. I thought he might've taken the wrong course, but spectators noted that he was several minutes ahead.

My focus for this second lap – which includes a near-summit of Pisgah – was to run the opening section as close to equal that of the first lap.  We came close, clocking a 31:12 to the first Aid Station.  From there, rather than stay low and loop around, the False Summit Loop would climb nearly a thousand feet.  I shuffled along - barely moving in order to keep the effort aerobic - with Walker right along side.  Finally, we crested the peak and, once again, bombed downhill to the start/finish.

Lap Three

Once again, I paused just long enough to grab my third honey water bottle before heading out for the third lap - a repeat of the first.  Walker tucked in behind for yet another round of fun.  Just before hitting the Aid Station out and back - mercifully our last across that 600m ice sheet - we ran into Josh.  He lead had dwindled to under two minutes; he was coming back.

He remained in sight as we climbed away from the AS, then disappeared again as we plunged into the tight, winding, mud-filled singletrack of Trail 4.  But about midway through the backside of Trail 4, he came into sight.  Finally, he was coming back to us. 

We catch Josh just after the powerlines, about 2.5K from the start/finish.  I said hello and snuck past him, climbing the muddy trail past him.  I could feel someone behind me for a while - was it Walker or Josh? - but after a mile or so, it was quiet.  I was finally alone.

Things were coming together.  And I was feeling great.  

The course popped out to the main trail and, once again, I bombed down the steep gravel to the start/finish.  Neither Josh or Walker were in sight, but they couldn't be that far behind. 

Lap Four

I was pumped with anticipation for the final lap: things had gone well through three laps, and I felt strong as I rolled into the start/finish for the penultimate time, grabbing my last water bottle.  I slowed just a bit to get out my iPod and put in the ear buds.  

Then I was off.  Hard.

The major emphasis of training - perhaps the only intensity emphasis - was running hard at the end of long efforts.  Since July, I can count on two hands the number of hard sessions I've run.  But the bulk of them in the past two months have been run at the end of 3-5 hour runs, going very hard - often as hard as I can - over the last 30-60 minutes.  And each of these runs have been done with zero fuel

I charged hard up the climb into the final lap, with Akon blasting in my ear, cajoling me up the trail.  I came across Josh - with Walker in tow - about three minutes up the trail, so they weren't too far behind. 

For the longest time I couldn't fathom pushing very hard at the end of a trail ultra, but what makes it possible is the variable terrain: because of the ups and downs, you're never pushing hard for too long, as there's usually a flat or light down to alleviate the effort.  As such, most end-of-run tempos are more like farleks.

This was the case the last lap: after a hard 4-minute push, I had an equal-length recovery downhill to the doubletrack, where I once again pushed hard.  Major focus was placed on form: strong elbow, forward trunk and opening the hips behind.  I felt great.

The music is always a great addition, especially when you feel great.  After Akon, I got treated to some ASAP Rocky, then a slew of Eminem; I even put "one of those fingers on each hand up" as I hit the trail junction to start the final summit - a brutal <2 mile, >1000 mud-slicked climb to the top of Pisgah.  The trail consisted of steep, washed out double track, then even steeper mud-caked trail as you approached the top.  I got goosebumps as I hammered up the steepest, muddiest section when this song came on.  

There'd be no "collapsing" today, as I summited Pisgah for the final time and hammered down the last 1.3 miles downhill to the finish.  

 finished in 4:03:30.  While the course was a bit shortened (about 1.3 miles of flat road was cut due to the snow and mud), I busted my friend Dan-O's course record by a solid half-hour.  

The splits:

Base Loop (#1): 1:03:54 (AS#2 ~30:40)
[False]Summit Loop 1: 1:06:25 (AS#2 31:12)
Base Loop (#2): 1:04:20 (AS#2 ~31:xx)
Summit  Loop 2: 48:50
---------Total: 4:03:30

Once again, the base loops were were the same, and the segment from the Start/Finish to Aid Station #2 were the same for the first three laps.  Excellent pacing, requiring very little effort to maintain - I think Gary Gellin would be proud.

I ran hard on that last lap, and I felt exceptional doing so, over that last 6-ish miles and >1000' climb.  Zero issues, other than a little stomach rumble from drinking only honey-water for four hours.  I took no other aid from the stations - a first for me in any marathon+ event.

I feel like this is exactly how I will run Bandera - and how it needs to be run: 95% aerobic for the first 50K loop, intermittently hard from 50-85K, then go as hard as I can go for that last 15K or so.  It is the fastest way for me to run it; the only question, then, is, is it fast enough for a Golden Ticket?

All in all, it was a great day, but the highlight was having Chelsea there.  I met her a year-and-a-half
ago, after taking the plunge into yoga following Western States 2012.  We quickly became close friends after that.

If relationships are hundred milers, we ran into some problems in The Canyons and wound up on the cot at Michigan Bluff four several hours.  DOA.  But as they often do, things turn around. Miracles happen. We got off the cot, and started walking toward Foresthill..  Things began to turn around...

About six weeks ago, we decided to put on a bib number.  We're rolling along pretty well now, and things are looking great.

It was great having her there.  For one, it was terrific to show her some athleticism: after 18 months of (poser at best, awkward at worst) yoga practice, something I'm better at than her! But more importantly, having her there - and in my life - adds valuable perspective: that running isn't everything, and that running is merely an avenue for personal growth, developing relationships with others, and contributing to the community.  But most importantly, it's being able to share these experiences with another; sharing passions

That said, I'm very much looking forward to what 2014 has to offer.  Starting with a little trail run in the Texas Hill Country.

Some pics from the day, all courtesy of Michael Lebowitz and LongRun Picture Company

A look at the conditions at the Start/Finish - about a third of the course was snow/ice covered

The Start: me (L) and Josh Zielinksi, just before he took the lead.  Notice the adidas adizeros he wore.  Ballsy.

Skating along the ice around mile two or so...

A look at the doubletrack road/trail in the Mt Pisgah Arboretum.

Me leading Walker into the second lap.

Securing the honey-water heading into the last lap, with the awesome OOJ Truck in the background.

"He's smiling because he's insane!"

Sunday, October 20, 2013

One-Itis: Life After Western States

How do you get over something, after thinking about it every single day, many times a day, for months, even years - only to be so squarely rejected? Even now, nearly four months later, I'm not sure I know that answer yet.

Perhaps the answer lies in not getting to that point in the first place...

Immediately post-WS, after my family departed, I stuck around in Placer County for a while.  Mr Wonderful invited me to spend the Fourth of July up at Tahoe.  I thought about it; it sounded fun, but a part of me recoiled: that'd be like breaking up with someone, then spending the holiday at her parents' house.

I'm out.

I went west, as far as I could, away from the stifling, 100+-degree heat. I drove into the night until the road ended, and only a thin ribbon of asphalt separated me from the end of the continent.  I slept in the back of my truck along the PCH, in the cool, thick Pacific air, Rickey Gates-style. 

Leaving Placer County - Carb-Crazed, post-WS binge. 

Acommodations along the California Coast, just north of Sonoma Coast State Park

California 1.  Amazing drive.  Like Wisconsin...with sea cliffs, ocean views, and eucalyptus trees.

Breakfast along the coast. 


The next day, I caught a Fourth of July Parade...Mendocino-style:

Fourth of July Parade in Mendocino!

Very political.  Also a lot marijuana smoke. 

An admirable-sized rat-tail...and bag of chips.

What says Liberty better than a giant dog that pees on the patriots?
The next night's lodging: the Lost Coast/Mattole Road, south of Ferndale, CA.

I spent the next several days, alone, driving.  Contemplating.  I'm not sure when it came to me, but I eventually it hit me.

I did it again.

I had one-itis.

One-itis is a debilitating disease:  "A unhealthy obsession with a single entity", a "social malady that results in a feeling that this entity is totally special and unique, and therefore one must not mess up anything with it".  Moreover, it almost always involves "completely unrealistic idealizations and expectations" -- of what your life would become, should you successfully master that thing.

But ultimately, this obsessive fixation invariably interferes with one's ability to execute and successfully.  Because anything that valuable takes a confident, relaxed (if not detached) execution to master.

There's the rub.

I felt jilted: I put so much into this race, that day, and for what? Nothing. I blew it.

All the hard work, from December to June. What did I have to show for it? Two lackluster races and a beer mile victory.

Something had to change. Many things.
*****
Base Training

First, I had to let go. Oddly enough, that was easy. The relentless obsession with Western States had drained me, even pre-race. And now, after having blown it? I felt a tremendous weight release when I began to let go. 

Secondly, I had to change. I needed to achieve greater balance, perspective, and resourcefulness in my life. Wiling the hours, doing nothing more than eating, sleeping, slogging miles – all the while remaining obsessed about Western States had gotten me less than nowhere – it caused me to lose sight of those things.

After returning home from the race, I was determined to work on the non-runner me. I felt like, in many ways, I was deficient in the comprehensive non-running resources and abilities to not only effectively maintain balance, but also help me reduce my stress and anxiety, and keep perspective. Developing and enhancing my social skills was a big part of that.

I recall during the Solo Fast 2012, that one of my most significant issues was the void of meaningful day-to-day relationships in my life. Simply put, I spend way too much time alone, bored and lonely. In particular, a lack of a significant other in my life for the past year has been a tremendous void, and a drain on my spirit. Like the absence of food during the Solo Fast, it is easy to put out of mind, but every so often it would strike furiously, and a deep ache would set in. 

I feel the purpose of relationships are two-fold: one, they are people with which to share important and exciting moments in life, and two, they exist for you to help them, and them, you: to survive the challenges of life and transcend toward greater living.

But relationships, like anything else, take time and effort. They take intention and commitment, skills and abilities, energy and courage.

I was committed to taking July off running.  So instead of training my legs, I trained my social skills.

The EUG can be challenging for post-collegiate to pre-retirement single folks like myself, but, I had a blast.  I went out. A lot. I all but begged folks to hang out, and if they couldn't, I'd roll solo. And I stayed out, until 3AM. On a Wednesday night. And when I wasn't going out, I was at home, reading and studying relevant social skills that I lacked (and sometimes I'd go out and read and practice!). I'd go out, being friendly, just talking to people. And, by and large, it was effective: I interacted with more people in meaningful ways in that month than I had in the previous four years I'd lived in Eugene.

Clifton and Jens, out at Max's Tavern - July 2013

Good times. 

Perhaps the most randomly awesome picture of the summer: Teacher, Mentor and friend, Gregg Johnson (L) - with Chris DeMarco teaching a manual therapy course in Portland - July 2013.  Chris punctuated his trip to PDX with a surprise-appendectomy at the very hospital where the course was taught.  On Sunday, he came down to say hello.

KILLING IT with Dan Majerle in NBA Jam - August 2013. 
An extremely important conclusion when overcoming One-Itis is the reality that no race is so important that winning it is going to make your life great, or not great. Fact of the matter is, it never works that way: those singular experiences can never live up to that pressure, that hype – and if they do, it is short-lasting, and you're left invariably asking, “It's not enough, what's next?”

Relationships are identical. No one person can ever make you happy. You make you happy. And the sooner one can recognize that experiences and relationships are only a part of life – and not the end-goal – then we can be set free to experience them unfettered, and without expectation. And then, we're far more likely to optimize those experiences and relationships.  When interacting with folks this summer, I expected nothing.  Then, when something did develop, it was everything

Through random-but-valuable interactions this summer in EUG, what I learned was this: meaningful relationships - and experiences - are not scarce.  However, those experiences frequently appear in places and forms you least expect - so you have to be open and accepting to whatever comes your way.   If you are, you just might find that very thing you're looking for.

The Rebound

Despite my positive mental being, post-Western States, I still felt driven to have a Rebound. I felt driven to do something, anything, besides Western States. The choice was easy: Waldo.

For the past two years, I'd signed up for Waldo 100K, and, post-WS, DNS'd both, due to inadequate recovery. This time 'round, after my WS Fun Run, I felt I'd be rested. But would I be prepared?

The Training

During my Western States ramp-up, I read a lot of the latest edition of Lore of Running. In it, Tim Noakes writes in characteristic detail about energy systems, and what we now know – or think we know – about endurance metabolism. Until now, I'd never read or heard significant treatment about the importance of fat-burning as fuel for endurance performance. That changed in 2013, reading from Noakes. Another big factor was spending time with Tim Olson down in Ashland. Our conversations about diet and training, coupled with what I was reading in Lore, pushed me to radically change my diet to be more fat-burn-friendly: namely by slashing the quantity of carbohydrates from my diet. Since mid-March, I've been bonafide low-carb: eating next to no carbs from sun-up to evening, and only then will I eat unprocessed fruits and vegetables, devoid of any grains, pastas, breads, or any previously guilty pleasure foods such as The Big C's (chips, cookies, candy, chocolate, [pan]'cakes). They were all gone.


(But: I wouldn't cut out my beer. I gotta live!)

Diet was a big change, but another important conclusion drawn, post-Western States, was that my fitness in 2013 was “upside-down”. This is a term I've coined when talking about the difference between aerobic and anaerobic fitness.  While diet is crucial to training fat burning capacity (what you put in is what you'll use), one must train at the proper intensity to allow fat-burning to happen.

Lore of Running talked about the 1989 Ironman Triathlon -- the epic battle between Dave Scott and Mark Allen, where the men ran 8:09 and 8:10, respectively, including a sub-2:40 closing marathon leg.  Noakes talks about the physical impossibly of only sugar burning for such an effort, then outlines Mark Allen's work with coach Phil Maffetone, DC, to enhance his fat-burning and sustainable training.  

Maffetone advocates his Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) effort as the most important element in developing aerobic fitness.  It represents the maximum intensity whereby fat can be used as fuel.  According to Maffetone, if we maintain [the vast majority of] our efforts at or below this level, we will enhance fat burning.  The effect is, the speed at which we travel - whether by foot, bike or swim stroke - will improve at the same effort level.  

MAF is measured by heart rate.  And the beauty of heart rate-based training is, it takes into account everything: not just fitness, but restfulness, stress, and nutrition, among other factors.  If any of those are off, it will reflect in heart rate.  With MAF training, the days of only focusing on "miles" are over.  It is, in effect, truly holistic training.

MAF is calculated, simply, by taking your age and subtracting it from 180.  Mitigating factors - including injury history and consistent training - might increase or decrease that value by +/- 5 BPM. 

Since resuming running at the end of July, 95% of my running has been at or below my MAF heart rate of 150.  Subsequent testing at our clinic found that my true end-range fat-burning is 158-162 BPM - the absolute highest intensity where fat burning stops.  

Progress is tracked by doing periodic 5-mile time trials at MAF heart rate. It's a rather fun game: how fast can you run, while keeping your heart rate low.  It emphasizes maximum efficiency and relaxation.

My initial effort highlighted how upside-down my fitness was:  by mile 5, I had to slow to >8-minute pace.  It has since imporved to 6:20-7:00 pace, simply by "running slow". 

Since July, I've experienced palpable benefits in both running and body composition: I felt “fat-burning power” during long runs and races, where I felt like I could “run all day”.  Moreover, this is the most muscular I've ever been.  I've gained some weight since WS, but it's been all muscle; in fact, I'm sure it's been a net muscle gain with fat lost.  

Moreover, my Waldo experience  - and a recent run around the Three Sisters, where I ran 50 miles without a single calorie - reinforced that this approach is extremely effective.  

Waldo 100K

Almost by definition, Rebounds never work as planned.  But they do serve a purpose.

I went into Waldo unprepared to run well, and that was OK.  I was committed to spending the entire run at or below anaerobic threshold.  While my MAF was 150, I allowed a ceiling of 160 for the "race".  But with the numerous steep and long climbs, sticking to this would be no small feat. 

As Craig Thornley set us off - for his last Waldo - it was yet another example of the impact of the sympathetic system on heart rate.  Three weeks before, I did the opening climb - a solid, 1000'+/25 minute slog - fairly easy at 150 BPM.  Race morning?  170, pegged.  Sonofabitch!  I leisure-hiked as the entire front-pack faded into the pre-dawn darkness.  All but Jacob Puzey, who was coming off a recent illness.  He and I shuffled with each other early, then reconnected as the trail summited the ski hill and rolled west and downhill.  Yet even then, I could scarcely keep the HR under 160.  Damn!

After the first aid station, I slowed even further.  The slog up to Mt Fuji was brutally slow.  Being passed by several runners, including early women's leader Joelle Vaught, were further gut-punches.  "This sucks.  What am I doing?"

I wanted to quit.  It was stupid.  But I shuffled along.  As I summited Fuji amidst irritating wildfire smoke drifting from the south, passing the front runners, already ten-plus minutes behind, I connected with Rob Hendrickson, who I paced at Waldo in '11.  We ran together, and I had a purpose again, for the time being.  He and I ran in lock-step down Fuju and back west toward the PCT.

On the PCT, things started to click.  I got comfortable.  I figured, "OK, this is good fat-burning training.  Just go with it".

So I did.  I shuffled along.

It was a tremendous learning experience.  I felt when my body grooved in fat-burning: when it did, I felt like I could run all day.  When I inched over 160, I felt a heaviness in my gut, and things got cloudy.  Soon, I scarcely checked the HR read-out.  I could feel it.

At the aid stations, I took my time: I stood around, drank soda, chatted, and waited for my HR to drop.  Often, I took over two minutes per station.  But I felt the heart - and brain - needed that rest to re-set the system and allow for better running in between. 

I I hiked a lot.  Uphills at 7,000' with low fitness made running in the fat zone impossible.  So I hiked.  At the 45 mile mark, I picked up my iPod.  Fun music invariably drives up heart rate, but it was a small price to pay for the entertainment.  I jammed to Akon and Eminem as I rolled south along the PCT toward the last big climb up the 7,800' Maiden Peak. Again, tons of hiking, but I made the most of it.  And I felt strong.  There was no fatigue in the legs. 

The summit marks the 53-mile mark and the high-point of the course. From there, it's all downhill. I made quick, aggressive work of it.  I stopped for another couple minutes at the Maiden Lake AS, the put the finishing touches on my first Waldo finish.

The closing ten kilos at Waldo are among the best in ultrarunning: groomed single track, flat-to-downhill in its entirely, save but a few uphill blips.  And the views! You're treated to four different mountain lakes, including three in succession in the final four miles.  It shocks me that some complain about that closing stretch - but I suppose the final kilos of a 100K are inherently brutal.

As I passed the Lower Rosary Lake, marking 5K to go, I was feeling the fatigue of the day, but the finish line was in smelling range. The root wad repair marks about a mile to go.  I was keeping to my 160 ceiling until then.  Then, this song came on.  I looked at my watch: sub-10:30 was in reach.  So I pushed it.

Western States was not in my thoughts very much that day, but it came to mind in those closing minutes.  I thought about Craig waiting - as he does at Waldo, and now WS - at the finish line.  I was looking forward to seeing him, and I thought about how Western was supposed to be.

Like this.  Success.  Triumph.  Joy.  As the single track burst into the clearcut homestretch to the ski area, this song came on.  On the WS playlist, was supposed to be my River-to-Green Gate song...

I crossed the finish line - MAF to the wind - just a shade over 10:30.  I was a good 85 minutes behind winner (and newest speedster-du-jour) David Laney.  That stung, but it is what it is: a terrific training effort, and an important rebound.

Occupy Waldo - the encampment, pre-race

Pre-Race Meeting: presenting Craiggers with a going-away thank-you present - a quilt of all the Waldo shirts

"Congratulations on a job...done".  The HRM's max'd-out calorie count.  That's a lot of beer. 

The Man at The Helm.
 *****

So, here we are.  It's Fall.  That magic hour, liberated from heat, bugs, and impending snow.  Ample opportunity for care-free outdoor adventures amongst the watercolor splatter of autumn leaves mixed with Pacific Northwest showers.   

Yet, The Cup looms.  Bandera is right around the corner. 

Yet in order to be successful - to do it right - is going to take patience.  Balance.  Perspective.  Relaxed detachment.  This fall continues to be an exercise on those things.  Some fall races and adventures that I'd looked forward to will have to take a back-seat to the Big Picture. 

I'll be back to Western States some day - with a number on. And when I do, it will be different. And even better than before.  Until then: patience, balance, perspective.