Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Miler - 2014

Pacing is a great way to experience an ultra marathon without having to run 100 miles.  This past weekend, I paced and crewed for Ryan, who ran the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Miler in just over 31 hours.  It was a long, beautiful, fun weekend.  I got to see most of the course, and hang out with a number of good friends.

View of Lake Tahoe in the early morning

The race started at 5am, but my day started a bit later.  My first stop was the Tunnel Creek Aid Station.  The course passes through that aid station six different times, the first of which is Mile 11.  I got there by 7:15am, too late to see the leaders go through the first time, but in time to see all of my friends who were in the race: Erin, Pedro, Neil and Ryan (and Kim, who was running the 50 Miler).  I then moved on to Diamond Peak Aid Station, at Mile 30, before going back to the condo to take a quick nap.

On the Walk Down from Tunnel Creek

Ultra running requires a great deal of planning.  Almost all runners wear a hydration pack to make sure that they have enough to drink, but eating is also important.  Most people, including me, have trouble getting enough calories during runs over 30 or so miles.  Ryan set his watch to vibrate every half hour to remind him to eat a Gu pack, which contains 100 calories.  He also used a sports drink and ate at the aid stations.  

As I was reminded at Bryce, it is also crucial to have extra clothing to deal with cold (or wet) weather.  Tahoe was hot and humid most of the day, but at about 5:30pm there was a heavy afternoon thundershower, featuring a downpour of rain and hail, and a lightening show.  Ryan was just short of the Mile 50 aid station and got soaked, as did many of the runners.  But, like most of the runners, he just toughed it out and kept on running, then changed into dry clothing as soon as he could.  

Rachael assisting Pedro at Mile 50
Pedro is one tough guy.  He does not do well in the heat, but he hung in there through the daytime, then picked up steam after the sun set.  Rachael paced him from Mile 50 to 80; that 30 mile stretch represents the longest she had ever run, and most or all of it was in the dark.  And, Pedro was sick during the early part her pacing leg, then recovered and took off on the downhill at the end.  She did a great job, and Pedro ending up finishing strong, in part thanks to her.

I paced the same leg as Rachel, from Mile 50 to 80, but had an easier time of it, as Ryan did not get sick (nor did he not take off down the final hill).  I started around 6:15pm, just after the thunderstorm, and finished around 4:45am.   So, I was able to watch the sun set, and I got about an hour of sleep between 6am and 7am before we went back out towards the finish line.

The Thunderstorm
Photo by Jonathan Bretan

Ryan on the climb out of Hobart Aid Station
Mile 62

It would be unfair to write about the day with mentioning Erin's great performance.  She ran strong all day and night, moving up through the pack and finishing in a PR of 29:17.  

Erin, with Helen pacing her

For those of you thinking of running the race: the course is similar to Bryce in terms of difficulty.  Altitude is about the same, generally over 7,000 with a high around 9,200.  The trails are significantly less technical and rocky at Tahoe.  The Race Director did a great job. The course was very well marked, the aid stations were excellent and the volunteers were friendly and knowledgeable.  Crew access is tough at Tunnel Creek, requiring a three mile walk up hill.  It is also a double loop course, but that is not such a bad thing, as half of the race in the dark anyway.  

Ryan at Mile 99.9

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Bryce 100

In March 2010, my father, who had been healthy and active, had 20 hours of emergency surgery and nearly died after his aorta dissected.   He survived and is doing well, but the incident had a lasting effect on me.  Here is a man who shares half of my DNA, and who had taken as good care of himself as can reasonably be expected.  Yet, without warning, he was nearly dead at age 77.  I was 47, and began thinking about my own life, and how I want to live my remaining years, however many they may be. 

The four years since my dad's heart incident have been difficult for me in many respects.  I've questioned myself, and pretty much every aspect of my life and relationships to others.  My dad's incident had opened up all sorts of emotions that had been dormant for decades.

The Bryce 100 ripped into that emotional opening.  It was by far the hardest thing I have ever done, an intensely personal experience that helped me remember who I am, and that, in the end, I must answer to and rely upon myself.  It's a lesson I learned long ago, but somehow forgot these past few years.

The Bryce 100 is challenging, even for a 100 miler.  The entire course is above 7,000 feet, with a high of 9,400 feet, and a total of 19,000 of climbing and descending.  It includes a mixture of rocky, sandy and smooth trails and fire roads.  But, the race also has a very generous 36 hour time limit.  The trick to ultra running is to go really slow; that applies double at Bryce.  

As with most ultra running events, the day did not go anything like it was planned.  I had planned on running the entire 100 miles with Jack, who was attempting the distance for the third time.  I did not expect him to push me, and was anticipating a pleasant, if rather long, social event in beautiful Bryce Canyon.  I assumed that Jack and I would do much more hiking than running, and finish between 30 and 36 hours.  

My only concern going into the race was my right heel.  About four weeks before race day, I bruised my heel running down the Upper Luna trail.  I was on crutches for three days.  It was just a few days before the race by the time I could run again.  On race day, I was no longer in pain, but was concerned that my heel would not tolerate 100 miles of trails.  I took an extra dose of Meloxicam, an anti-inflammatory, and carried a bottle of ibuprofen as well.

On the Shuttle from Ruby's Inn to the Starting Line
Note the Peruvian Beanie 

We started off at 6am, in a parking lot a few miles outside of the town of Bryce.  As we jogged down the fire road towards the trails, a small family of three ungulates (Deer?  Elk? Someone said they were Antelope) bounded into the forest a few hundred yards ahead. 

After two miles of fire road, the course turned right onto the Thunder Mountain trail.

Mile 2

Around Mile 7

We started off gently, enjoying the scenery with the other runners, many of whom were also stopping frequently to take pictures. Nevertheless, quite early on, it became clear to me that Jack was in trouble, as we were moving slower and slower.  This gave me time to take pictures, and to chat with other runners and aid station volunteers.  

Blubber Aid station, Mile 27

Ed the Jester
If you don't see Ed, it probably isn't a 100 miler

We arrived at the Straight Canyon Aid Station, at Mile 40, the first spot with crew access, late in the day and I was already thinking about cut-off times.  But I was also feeling strong.  The only difficulty was my heel, which was beginning to hurt.  I decided to change into my new Hokas, extra padded shoes, even though I had never run in them before.  I figured we were walking anyway, and I could change back into my Inov8 295s at the 50 mile marker, if need be.

A friendly runner named Nick joined us for the next leg, a five mile climb to the Pink Cliffs Aid Station, the highest point on the course.

It was slow going up the hill, and it was clear that Jack would not complete the course that day.  At Mile 45, at Pink Cliffs, he told me has dropping out.  I did not argue with him and instead asked permission to be released to finish the race alone.  He immediately agreed.  The real adventure started at that moment.

I was still feeling fresh, but concerned about the fact that I was near the cut-off times.  I said goodbye to Jack and Nick, and ran fairly hard to the Crawford Pass Aid Station, the 50 mile marker and the turn around point for the Bryce 100.  It was just getting dark when I came into the camp ground and gave my number to the volunteer at the entrance to the aid station.

And I couldn't find my crew.  I looked all throughout the aid station area, at the fire, and even into the parking lot.  I called out. Nothing.  No crew, and thus no warm night gear.  I tried the cell phone but there was no reception.  I asked the aid station volunteers, but they could not help me.  

My crew had assumed that I would stay on the same pace that Jack and I had been walking, so I had arrived an hour or so earlier than they had anticipated, and they were sitting in the car to stay warm. I hadn't seen or recognized the car in the dark, and they had the windows rolled up, so they did not hear me.  

After about five minutes I gave up looking for help from others and decided to do what I needed to finish the race.  It was getting cold and I was wearing only a sweaty technical shirt and running shorts but I took off, still moving fast, towards the 55 mile marker back at Pink Cliffs.

It was 9:41 p.m. and dark when I left Crawford Pass.  When I saw Jack at about Mile 48, he told me that he had spoken to our crew and they were indeed at Crawford Pass.  He promised to talk to them, and make sure that they met me at Straight Canyon with my night gear.

I felt fine when I passed Pink Cliffs.  About half way between Pink Cliffs and Straight Canyon, however, I began to feel slightly woozy.  It did not occur to me right away, but by the time I was within a mile of Straight Canyon I knew I was in the beginning stages of hypothermia.  It turns out it was about 32 degrees outside. I was cold, and none too pleased.  

I began hyperventilating at or about the time I sat down at the fire. And things went down hill from there.  I started thinking that I would not be able to finish, and for the third time in my life, had a panic attack, which manifested in more hyperventilating.   All I wanted to do was finish, and it seemed that that was in doubt.

I spent an hour in the car, with the heater and seat-heater on full blast, blankets and warm clothes.  It was at about that time that I had my first hallucination.    David handed me my black beanie, but what I saw was the Peruvian beanie, pictured above.  I even asked David how the Peruvian beanie had gotten into the car, as I knew he had taken it back to the hotel room after the race began. 

It was 2am when I got out of the car and got back on the course. No, it was not a wise move.  There were 40 more miles of trails, and no more crew access.  I knew I had a heart condition, albeit one that is under control.  I wish I had had a coach to rely on to make the decision for me.  

I thought about my high school coach, Richard Kampmann, and what he would have said if he had been there.  I knew that he would have told me to call it a day, and that I would have accepted it coming from him.  Coach K is a kind and wise man, and I love and trust him.  But Coach was not there.

In the end, I made my own decision.  And I decided to finish if I possibly could.  I had worked too hard and invested too much to simply give up.  I was going to finish the course, and beat the cut-off time, if at all possible.  That was the goal I set for myself when I started, and that was the goal I had in mind at 2am.

Maybe it is a good thing that Coach was not there.  I had asked to run with Jack, which turned out to be a bad decision.  I had asked for my crew to bring my night gear, and that had not worked well either.  Perhaps it is a good thing that, instead of relying on someone else, I made my own decision for my own reasons.

I slogged it out through the night, walking the uphills and shuffling the downhills and most of the flat ground.  David did his usual great job of pacing, urging me along and trying to get me to eat, which I didn't want to do.  I had mild hallucinations the remainder of the run.  For example, I thought a charred log was a black bear cub, and was concerned because I couldn't see it's mother.   After a while I questioned much of what I saw on the course.

We reached Blubber Aid Station at Mile 73 after sunrise, but it was still too cold to remove all the cold weather clothing I'd put on back at Straight Canyon.  At the Mile 82 aid station a volunteer made me an impromptu drop bag and I finally stripped back to just the technical shirt and shorts in which I'd started the race. 

At Mile 90 we still had six hours left before the cut off and I finally felt confident that I'd finish.  I started to let off a bit, as my feet were badly blistered from the Hokas.  We saw ultra running legend Tim Olson around Mile 95.  He smiled and cheered me on, which made me feel really good.

I finally dragged myself across the finish line at 3:39pm, 33 hours and 39 minutes after I'd set out the day before.  It's a truly embarrassing time, in some respects, but I'm proud of myself.  It was a very tough run, in various respects, and things did not go as planned. Yet I stuck to my goal.  Maybe I whined a bit at times, and there was certainly some unnecessary drama at Straight Canyon, but in the end I did not give up or make excuses.

It's difficult to put into words the emotional aspect of a run like Bryce.   Some combination of the physical effort and exhaustion, and the emotional turmoil, create an altered mental state that seems to last several days.  I feel like my personality has been permanently altered, and I'm on to the next stage of my life.

Surprisingly, my body seems to have come through Bryce quite well. I'm tired quite a bit, but not a single muscle strain or other bodily injury other than some nasty blisters.  Now it's time to rest up and get ready for the next adventure.