Monday, September 12, 2011

McKenzie River Trail Run 50K Race Report

"This is probably one of those things that I don't feel like doing now, but once I do it, I'll be really glad."

- Me, to Britt, the night before the 24th running of the McKenzie River Trail Run

In my two+ years as a Eugene resident, if I had a buck for every time I've heard, "Are you gonna run McKenzie?", then I'd at least have enough for a pony keg of Ninkasi.  After a solid month of training - my first since March - I thought this would be a terrific training and racing opportunity, and a chance to take in a local classic. 

But no sooner that I got a number did a major forest fire threaten the event's 24th running.  I watched daily the fire grow closer and closer to the course, the winds carrying the smoke due west, over the course and into the Willamette Valley, creating orange sunsets and deteriorating air conditions.  Rat farts.

On top of that, I felt really worn down: high training volumes and allergy-related malaise wore me down all week -- the run up Hardesty on Wednesday was a death march.  As such, I began to doubt my ability and willingness to gut out a tough (now out-and-back, uphill-finishing due to Forest Service land closures) 31-miler in acrid smoke.

I advised Britt not to make the 5AM trip up, with the real possibility that the smoke would be so bad that I may turn around and come home.  And it almost looked that way: beyond McKenzie Bridge, the smoke was heavy enough to reduce visibility and create serious doubts in my mind.

The smoke coming over a ridge on OR126, just kilos from the race start, nearly made me turn the car around!
However, once over the ridge and down towards Carmen Reservoir, the smoke -- like a fickle morning fog - disappeared.  I was committed. 

The McKenzie was normally a fast, competitive race; however this year the field was a bit thinned, with DNS' by such McK regulars as Todd Braje and Dan-O[lmstead].  However, between perennial top finisher Jeremy Tolman and the hot-running Nick Triolo -- fresh off a top 3 at Waldo 100K -- there'd be plenty up front to keep it honest and interesting. 

The typical McKenzie Course goes upstream along waterfalls and lava flows for 6 miles, before turning back on itself for a progressive downhill 25 miles (and >1500' drop).  This year, due to the fire closures, we'd go up river only a mile-and-a-half, then run downriver 15 miles before turning back for a presumed 14-mile grind back to the start/finish. 

The race start was a half-mile dirt road which allowed for the field to thin and prepare for the single track ascent.  By the time we hit the trail, it was us three: Jeremy up front, then me and Nick.  Jeremy set an honest pace -- just hard enough to feel the effort, but easy enough for me to consider sticking on him.  We passed at least one impressive waterfall along the technical single track and lots of roaring whitewater before crossing a log bridge to our long descent. 

The MRTR would be an opportunity for me to try some new things:  1.) my new Nathan hydration pack - my first race without hand-helds, and 2.) some new form techniques.  In her race report from WS, The Queen had reminded me of something vitally important that I'd lost track of -- using the arms!  It's so damn hard to use the arms while lugging 2-lb weights in each hand, thus the switch to the hydration pack which, surprisingly, was amazingly comfortable despite it's gaudy appearance.  As LB put it, it "has enough room for sandwiches for the top ten runners".  Moreover, in addition to its sandwich-carrying capacity, it also carried 70 oz of water with less perceived effort than 2x20 oz of bottles.  It also allowed for liberal arm swing - AND - combined with a gel flask with nips at 20-minute intervals (like WS), it allowed me greater liberty at aid stations.

As we made our initial descent, I stuck close to Jeremy, trying to make my feet move quickly along the uneven lava and twisting descents.  I caught my foot on one and narrowly averted a dive. "Toes up!". 

Initial water-only aid was at 3.5 miles.  With 60+ oz of a light Nuun mixture, there wasn't a chance I'd stop.  Jeremy was really working his bottle in those initial miles, so it didn't surprise me that he'd stop for a refill.  I took that opportunity to blast in front and try to make him work to catch back up with us.  We never saw him again, and it was just me and Nick.

After a couple miles, now entering the ~2-mile stretch of technical lava, Nick and chatted a bit.  I'm really happy for him -- if not more than a bit jealous -- that he earned a coveted Montrail WS spot for 2012.  But because of that effort just three weeks prior, I knew he couldn't be fresh.  As such, I pushed the pace a bit when allowable - in the smooth wooded areas after the lava, before AS #2 at Trail Bridge.

The hydration pack was a total game-changer at the AS'.  Previously, I'd have to stop for bottle fills, then find myself staring at the food table like it was a Vegas buffet, and before I knew it, three minutes had passed.  Today?  I was in and out in ten seconds, no joke.  At Trail Bridge, I took three cups of various fluids.  FAST.  I laughed to myself, because I imagined myself looking like "Mac" in "Super Troopers" doing shots!  And that became the pattern: my own gels and water, and lightning fast fluids at the AS', to make Nick or anyone else work really hard to keep up. 

I had the first of a few blips just after Trail Bridge, as the trail climbed away from the river along a ridge.  I had packed along both E-caps and S-caps and figured I needed some salt; I popped an E-cap and felt better within a couple minutes.  Despite my fast AS, Nick was right on me on the ridge ascent, as we made our way through the early starters.  I almost let him pass me just so he was the one who had to keep saying, "On your left, two!".  In my mind of one of several thoughts I had of "The Gentle Giant", Dave Mackey, who said in his 2K11 Miwok race report"In an ultra, it is my goal to never be breathing hard ...until the last 5 miles or so if needed. So I try to maintain an effort level which feels like I could always run a bit faster at all times."

As such, my mindset was always, "I am NOT working hard!".  Instead I tried to use good mechanics to keep the pace honest.

After descending the ridge we crossed a dirt road and returned to nice swath of flat, smooth single track.  I cruised pretty good here, focusing on my new mechanical mantra: "TALL - ARMS - HIPS!".  "Tall" is for posture - it's so easy to get tired and arch the upper back and crane the neck, but you'd be shocked at how much power you lose - the weight of ones body being unable to "escape" through the legs (not to mention the significant neck ache!); "Arms" for elbow swing, to not only generate power but stride frequency; and "Hips" for the flick & pull mechanics that I feel is so crucial. 

Deer Creek AS was more of the same - very quick fluids, no solids, go - as we navigated through some more technical root- and stone-covered trail before emerging on a dirt road.  Normally, we'd run only a short segment on here, but the RD's took advantage of this strip to create a 3 mile lollypop at the turnaround, thus alleviating a great deal of the out-and-back traffic at the turn.

By this time, I'd put a bit of distance on Nick.  My weakness always seems to be technical downhill, so once we were on the flats, I opened up the stride.  I was flagging a bit on the road and the E-caps didn't seem to be cutting it, so I made the decision to try an S-Cap, and to dissolve it in my mouth before ingesting.  I sucked and bit down on it 'til the near-gram of sodium chloride burst, then sucked on the hose to gut it down.  However, rather than go down, it went up - into my nose!  My God did that burn!  A straight shot of salt-paste into nasopharyx!  I coughed and blew salt snot, but the burning was unabated.  I could only laugh.  Wow.  "Smelling salts".  That woke me up. 

We finally arrived at the turnaround, and although my nose got a good portion, the S-cap helped a ton.  I again blew through the AS with two quick gulps of Pepsi and a water, and began the "Long, Lonely Climb of Loneliness" - 14 miles uphill to go. 

I didn't look back but I felt like a I had a good minute on Nick.  And again, with his post-Waldo fatigue and my quickness through the AS', I believed it'd be too hard for him to work back up to me.  I made sure of it with the mantra: "Tall-Arms-Hips!", keeping the feet moving.  This was a tremendous weakness of mine this first year -- my slow turnover made a slow-down inevitable when fatigued.  But I'd been working on it hard for weeks, including some great uphill efforts at Hardesty, so when it came time to grind those middling uphill miles, I was ready.  I knew I wasn't slowing down.

I ran solo for a good 2K+, occasionally scanning behind me for Nick, before re-emerging onto the road and into the face of the rest of the field.  I worried a bit about this, but the cascade of "Good job!"s buoyed my efforts and more than offset any inconvenience of the traffic.  I worked the stride hard on this segment, and even had periods of feeling really good!  I tried to channel my inner-Meghan by smiling a lot ("She's smiling because she's insane!"). 

A couple significant climbs reminded me that, "I'm not working hard!", and refocused me on form.  I took another S-cap by dissolution -- and avoided the nose.  You know you need salt when a gram of it on your tongue tastes good. 

The climbs before the Trail Bridge were almost killer - I was working hard, no doubt.  I took an entire gel - one of two I packed in addition to my flask, then sucked hard on the hydration pack - to near-empty - knowing the last AS was near.  I had no clue how much from Trail Bridge to the finish (5? 7.5?), but I knew I needed a refill.  Before I was in sight, I was already unloading the pack for a fill.  While waiting for the AS workers to reload me, I took two potato nuggets dipped in salt and a few cups of soda.  They made quick work and I was off.  I was buoyed by hearing it was "only 8K" to the finish.  My watch read about 3:03 when I left, so I figured another 40 minutes of running, at worst 45 for this last <5 miles. 

Channeling "The Gentle Giant" once again, now it was time to work: I pushed the last five miles, especially those initial kilos after the AS that were non-volcanic.  But back on the lava, it was a game of obstacle negotiation and keeping the feet moving, neuromuscular demands trumping the aerobic.  It was now getting legitimately warm, and I sucked on the hose with reckless abandon, thankful for the liberal refill.  "Tall-Arms-Hips!, Tall-Arms-Hips!".  Finally through the lava, I pushed and pushed, up and over rolling moguls, alternately scanning to my right for any sign of Carmen Reservoir, and for Nick at my rear.  But neither arrived.  As the meters accumulated, and my watch approached 3:40, I began to doubt the accuracy of "8K" I'd been quoted.  "Could it be 7-and-a-half?" "How much farther around Carmen are we running to finish?" 

Finally the reservoir could be seen, as the course climbed for the last time to a ridge overlooking the water.  The legs felt great and the stride opened up on the final descent and river crossing to a flagging for the finish.  I crossed the line at 3:47:54 for my first real victory since last year's Autumn Leaves

The finish line was pretty sparse at 11:17, but Dan-O was there to congratulate, and within a few minutes there came Nick.  While re-hydrating on water and soda the three of us chatted about the race before Jeremy came in for 3rd place. 
Me and Nick, post-race.  Wish that was a beer in hand - it was only a Sierra Mist.
The rest of the late morning and early afternoon was spent hanging at the finish line, watching and cheering finishers.  Turning in solid efforts included the fabulous running duo of Ken Sinclair (4th - 4:17) and Denise Bourassa (14th, 2nd woman - in a 4:36 "tune-up jog"), and LB notching his 10th MRTR (6th, 4:19), all under 4:20.  Had a great time hanging out and chatting with these folks, and getting to know Nick and others.  It was also fun to see the incomparable Todd Bosworth cross the line, who made a faux-turnaround as if to do a 50K cool-down.   
Mr Bosworth, crossing the finish with the biggest applause, turning to "start his 2nd lap"
Overall, I was very pleased with the race: my effort, the competition and camaraderie, the conditions -- the smoke was hardly noticed -- and the courage and tenacity of the RDs to go through with the race!  

The Grades:

Pacing: A-.  My inner-Dave worked well; I felt I kept it sustainable, yet honest, then ran hard the last 5 miles.  Per Nick, "I thought I could reel you in, but it never happened".  This was primarily due to solid mechanics and fueling (see below).  However, to be critical, I do think I could've pushed it more on the flats and downhills.

Mechanics: A-.  Probably my best mechanics to date in an ultra, for sure on a true trail ultra.  The mantra worked great and I used my arms the best yet.  Negative points for striking too much on the lateral foot - my outer toes were sore post-race, evidence I wasn't getting on the 1st ray like I should be.

Hydration/Fuel/Electrolyes: A.  Nailed it.  Very fast through the AS', using them for fast, high-volumes of fluid.  I took maybe 5 gels all day and only two small potato nuggets.  I took in a ton of fluild, though, but I needed it all.  2.5 S-caps, maybe 4 E-caps.  Solid.  Fast.  The only blemish was, once again, not having chilled beer on hand for post-race! 

Mental Toughness: A-.  Can't complain, however, I don't think I was every truly challenged.  But based on my fitness and freshness, I was lucky to have not been.  In the end, I truly feel the uphill finish played in my favor, as I'm a much better uphill-grinder than a downhill/technical negotiator.


  1. Great race report, Joe! Very insightful stuff on biomechanics and nutrition. Great sharing the trails with you out there. Hope to cross paths soon brother. - nick

  2. Nice work out there, was super stoked for you and the win. This I think will build a solid base for a great 2012, now the wait to see if any of us can get into the Dance.

  3. @Nick- Thanks for the post, and nice meeting and running with you! Keep that Sisters loop in mind -- I'm considering the weekend of 10-1 possibly for that run!

    @Ken- I spent a good 5min thinking, "Who's KRIS?". Thanks for the post, always fun to see the Dynamic Duo; hope to see you guys down the trail soon, and looking forward to a possible WS training camp next May!!!