Wednesday, August 29, 2012

North Country Run, 50 Mile Race Recap

Sometimes 100% Isn't Enough: A Tale of How I Gave Everything but Came Up Short

I said, "No comment!"
I've run hard before, occasionally. Relatively hard anyway. Not, make-myself-piss-blood-afterwards hard. But hard enough. After all, this is ultra running. We can't suffer at the same intensity for a 50 miler as we can for a 5K. Well, perhaps we can. But really, who the hell would want to? That's a lot of suffering!

This past weekend I travelled to my home state of Michigan to take part in The North Country Run 50 Mile in the Manistee National Forest. I won't lie: I was hoping to win!

You never know who's going to show up at one of these things, or who's going to have the race of their life. But I figured that unless some Midwestern bad ass like David Riddle, Zach Gingerich, or Zach Bitters showed up, I should have just as much of a chance as anyone of bringing home the win.

Spoiler: I didn't win. I did however manage to claw my way (albeit briefly) up into second place with just two miles left in the race. But then I promptly fell back to third place in the last mile when both of calves decided to stage a work protest. Note: In case you haven't tried it before, running with fully-seized calves doesn't work well. It also makes one look rather ridiculous.

As I hobbled toward the finish line (in what felt like ultra slow motion) with my legs flailing in all directions, my left arm pinned to my chest (my left bicep and pectoral muscle had cramped as well), and my face contorted in a twisted grimace, I couldn't help but wonder if all the teary-eyed, overly-supportive spectators cheering their heads off were thinking, "Oh my goodness, look at that special-needs guy! If he can finish a 50 miler anyone can. How inspiring! Way to go little buddy!"

But I've gotten ahead of myself. Let's regress a bit...

Pre-Race Game Plan

John (right) and pacer Bill Pritchett (left)
My pacer looked me in the eye at dinner the night before the race and asked, "OK, what's the plan for tomorrow?" Plan? What? Huh? I'm supposed to have a plan? Oh shit!

My buddy Bill Pritchett had agreed to pace me for the second of the two 25 mile loops that I'd be running during the race. Bill and I met years ago at an SAP conference; we had both brought running shoes to the conference in hopes of slipping quietly out of a session or two to sneak in a run.

We've been "conference running buddies" ever since, logging runs together at SAP conferences around the world (by "world" I generally mean the greater Orlando Disney area of course).

Bill works for Dow Corning in Midland, Michigan. He's an accomplished marathoner (and triathlete) who has run the Boston Marathon several times. When I told him that I was coming back to Michigan to run a 50 mile race, he was excited about the chance to run the last 25 miles with me.

I casually mentioned that the course would be "a bit hilly", while conveniently neglecting to mention that there would be about 2,500 ft of elevation gain per 25 mile loop. Whereas Bill's hilliest road marathon, the Boston marathon, only had 783 ft of elevation gain. This would later prove to be rather important!

First 25 Miles: Wee, What Fun!

He's won Badwater (4 times) and climbed Mt. Everest
For reasons unclear to me at the time (and never later explained) our 50 mile trail race included an additional gratuitous "bonus mile" on an out-and-back section of parking lot and paved road. I can only assume that this was done in order to allow guest race official, ultra-stud Marshall Ulrich (driving an off-road ATV) to lead us on a ceremonial opening mile along the road.

Unsure of where we were going or why we were running down the road AWAY from the trail, I decided to hang back conservatively in the lead pack until we figured out what the hell we were doing. There was a lot of mumbling and confusion.

No one seemed overly concerned when a stocky young woman, who looked more like a Rugby player than a long distance runner, charged off the front and opened up a huge lead. I would later learn that it was 3:07 marathoner Megan Rieger -- and yes, she went on to win the women's race and finish 8th overall, just 15 or so minutes behind me.

Confusion at the starting line
After we hit the trail and started the first long climb, I made an on the fly decision to back off the pace and let the lead pack of 8 or 9 runners go. I felt everyone was moving at much too fast a pace to maintain for 50 miles. My plan (loosely formed and rather impromptu) was to run the first loop at a comfortable pace, while ideally staying near the top 10, and then to reel in as many people as possible on the second loop once I had picked up my pacer Bill.

At the half-way point of the first lap I came across Jesse Scott, who I had run with at both my Tahoe Rim Trail 100 and the North Fork 50 in Colorado. Small world! Jesse was running the marathon race, and then pacing a friend and client of his for the last 14 miles of the 50 miler. All this after having just run Leadville 100 a couple of weeks prior. Dude is crazy!

I kept moving along at a decent pace, slowly moving up in the field and catching a couple of runners on the second half of the first loop. The last few miles were rather hilly and I was able to run all the hills without too much effort. Note: this would not be the case later during the second loop!

Second 25 Miles: Ugh, Help!

As I finished the first loop and came into the start/finish area I was happy to see my pacer Bill waiting and ready to go (and not stuck in the port-o-potty line or otherwise occupied). Bill, with his fresh legs, set a good pace on the first long climb. In fact he set too good a pace. So good that I watched with admiration as he effortless ascended the hills, getting smaller and smaller in the distance as I slipped behind.

I yelled up at Bill to hold on for a minute, fabricating some story about need to stop and pee. Actually I did pee. I didn't know it at the time, but it would be the only time I would pee during the nearly eight hour race. It would also be the last time I would pee normal looking clear fluid that didn't look like used engine oil or coca-cola mixed with blood. I guess it's called Rhabdomyolysis. Whatever.

Eventually Bill's adrenaline wore off and he slowed down a bit. We were still moving at a nice clip though. Suddenly we came up on the back of a group of three shirtless runners. I had prepped Bill the day before on my strategy for passing other competitors during the race. I like to pass decisively with such force and acceleration that people don't even think about trying to go with you.

I flew by the group of runners at what felt like 5K pace. I heard a bunch of groans and expletives. More importantly, I didn't hear any footsteps. Just the way I like it. But to be sure, I stayed on top of the pace for another half mile or so, just to make sure that I opened up a big enough gap to keep me out of sight.

Bill and I continued running steady and moving up in the filed. We caught a couple of more runners. Things were looking good! And then things hit the fan. I'm not sure how exactly it happened, but at some point Bill and I found ourselves with empty water bottles miles out from the next aid station. Bill offered me his last sip of Gatorade. I felt like Chevy Chase in that desert scene in The Three Amigos.

The dehydration, combined with the 90 degree heat and the hills, took away our will to run. We started walking the hills. Eventually we made it to the next aid station. I drank what seemed like a good 5 or 6 liters or water and sports drink before moving on. Oddly though, I still felt thirty. But I rationed my water and kept moving forward -- walking the hills and running the flats and downhills.

The Finish

World's largest finisher's medal?
I assumed that I was moving pretty slowly and probably slipping back in the field. So I was quite surprised when I caught two more runners. Then people at the aid stations started telling me that I was in third place and that the lead runner was just ahead. My pacer Bill had stopped to use the bathroom and had lingered at the last aid station to eat some watermelon. So I made the decision to push on alone and try and catch the runner in second place.

Finally I saw him. He appeared to be in almost as bad shape as me. We were both walking an uphill. I dropped the hammer and shifted into a higher gear, cranking the speed up to 3.5 mph. I blew by him, hobbling up the hill like... an 80 year old man with a broken hip trying to navigate an icy sidewalk. It wasn't pretty.

However, my glory was short lived. Eventually the uphill ended and we had a mile of downhill and flat. I simply couldn't run. Both calves knotted up. Then, just for good measure, my left bicep cramped up. And so did my left pectoral muscle. WTF!

John representing California
I limped the last mile in agony, cursing and laughing intermittently. Finally the finish line came in sight and I launched my finishing "sprint". The last 100 meters probably took me over a minute. I don't know. And I don't really care.

On the one hand, I was disappointed that I didn't win. This was a race that I had been looking forward to all year, and one that I had invested a lot of time, money, and emotional energy into. On the other hand, 3rd place isn't too shabby I guess.

And apparently I ran a 50 mile PR. My finishing time of 7:54:43 is about 24 minutes faster than my previous best of 8:18:16 at Dick Collins Firetrails 50 in Oct, 2010.

Click here for Strava data.

Note: Special thanks to my pacer Bill Pritchett to getting me to the race (it's a long story) and doing a great job pacing me the second lap!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

2012 Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) Race Report

Short version: Fuck Yeah!!! After two previous DNFs at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run, the third time was the charm. This year I made it to the finish line (with help from my coach Caitlin Smith and my pacer Jeremy Johnson) and brought home a Sub 24 hour belt buckle with my Top 10 finish!

"A glimpse of heaven, a taste of hell"

Long Version: 100 miles is never easy! Of the four 100 mile races I had previously attempted in the past, I had only successfully ever finished one (Black Hills 100, 2011), while DNF'ing at my first three 100 miler attempts including Umstead (way back in 2005), and two recent fails at Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) in 2009 and 2011. Yet here I was taking another crack at TRT, hoping that the third time would be the charm. The good news, I suppose, was that I was on a finishing "streak" having finished 1 out of 1 of my last 100 mile attempts!

Dragging myself to the finish line at Black Hills 100 last year in South Dakota was perhaps the most difficult thing I have ever done, and one of the things in my life that I am most proud of. I flew out to the race with no crew or no pacer. Just me (and the voices in my head). Even when a vicious hail and lightening storm caught us on top of the mountain and caused 70 or the 100 starters to drop out, I refused to quit. Even when my Garmin GPS showed 107.5 miles and the finish line still wasn't quite in sight, I hobbled on.

So while I know that I am capable of enduring extreme suffering when necessary, to be quite honest, I was hoping to try a different strategy this year at TRT. Rather than coming in under-trained, under-recovered, and under-prepared, I thought I would do things a bit differently. Like actually train! Like hire a coach, and not just any coach, but a bad-ass ultra-stud coach like Caitlin Smith. Like taper for 3 weeks beforehand instead of coming in with trashed legs. Like bring a jacket. And sunscreen. And an extra water bottle. Etc.

The first 50 miles (i.e., the easy part)

Unlike previous years, I actually got a good full-night's sleep before the race this year. I was in bed by 8:00 pm and asleep by 9:00 pm. So when my alarm went off at 3:00 am, I actually felt fairly well rested. I coffee'd up, calorie-loaded with a banana nut muffin, and lathered myself up with various lotions, potions, powders, and sunblocks.

Standing at the starting line, I felt good. Nervous as fuck, but good nonetheless. My coach Caitlin had written up a plan of attack for the race that had me going out at a fairly aggressive pace with a target of running the first 50K in about 5 hours and thirty minutes, and the first 50 miles in around 10 hours. This would be significantly faster than last year when I jogged into the 50 mile mark just over 11 hours.

At the start, next to eventual race winner, Matt Hart

One big advantage I had in my favor this year (besides having a coach) was that my wife and I purchased a hypoxic altitude tent that allowed us to sleep (and work from home) at a simulated 11,000 ft elevation for several months leading up to the race. It made a HUGE difference. Unlike previous years when I immediately found myself sucking wind and in oxygen debt as soon as the race started, this year I effortless hung with the race leaders during the first long climb.

Working from home in the elevation tent

At one point I even found myself running in second place, just ahead of race favorite Victor Ballesteros (who would unfortunately later drop at mile 50). While I felt fine, I figured I better back off the pace a bit since it was going to be a LONG race. As soon as we got off the single track and onto the fire road, I dropped back to about 10th place and let the lead runners go. It would prove to be a wise move.

I settled into a groove and started clicking off the miles. Everything was feeling great. It was a nice cool morning, perfect running weather (note: it would later get much hotter and much less perfect). I was treated to an amazing sunrise and  some breathtaking views of Marlette Lake. So far, so good!

Sunrise over Marlette Lake

Somewhere around mile twelve I was surprised to hear a woman's voice call out "on your left". WTF? I just got chick'd. It was Argentinian studette, Sofia Cantilo (who would later crack and finish 5 hours behind me). Seconds later another female voice. This time the familiar face and voice of Quicksilver Running Club teammate Bree Lambert. I gave her the thumbs up and a gentle reminder her that it's a 100 mile race, not a 12 mile race (Bree would unfortunately later DNF due to medical issues).

Argentinian runner, Sofia Cantilo, running strong early

Teammate Bree Lambert keeping Sofia in sight

Two dudes from Michigan, John Burton and Jesse Scott

At one point I looked behind me and wondered to myself, who is that weirdo running in a cotton "where's waldo" tee shirt and American flag shorts? I would later learn it was fellow Michigander, Jesse Scott (aka "Captain America"). He and I ran together through the first Red House loop. And apparently, even though I never saw him behind me afterward, he and I both came into the first Diamond Peak aid station at the same time. However, that's where his struggles began. He would eventually finish much later after a long, tough day. You can read all about it on his blog, In Search of Solid Ground.

Climbing out of Red House loop with Jesse Scott

The section from Tunnel Creek to Diamond Peak is my least favorite part of the course. It's a rather desolate section where you rarely see another living soul. I always tend to struggle on this section of trail. This year I got so bored on this section that I was almost hoping another runner would catch up to me so that I would have someone to talk to. At one point I even found myself musing that it would be neat to run into a bear, or a mountain lion, or a rattle snake. Or anything for that matter. But no, it was just me and a bunch of dumb rocks on the trail.

Finally I saw the sign for the turn onto the Flume Trail. Although this trail would be a lot of fun on a mountain bike (with its banked turns, ramps, jumps, and other obstacles) it kinda sucks to run. But whatever. I hunkered down and got er done. I got a bit dehydrated (I probably should have carried two water bottles for this 8.5 mile section) but luckily I was able to refill my bottle in a nearby creek.

After a brief stop in the bushes to take care of some personal business, I started to feel a little better. And then I got a huge mental lift at mile 30 as I exited the wilderness and approached the Diamond Peak ski resort where Amy and John Paul were waiting to cheer me on! I came in at 5 hours and 15 minutes, just as planned. A quick change of socks and I was off, ready to "attack" the 2 mile black diamond ski slope.

John Paul learning about the importance of dry socks

Diamond Peak, steep 40% grade in sand kinda sucks!

The climb up Diamond Peak is definitely the hardest part of the course. The first mile is fairly easy, but the last kilometer is ridiculously steep (over 40% in some sections). And to make it worse, the loose sand makes it nearly impossible to get good footing so you slide backward occasionally. Two steps forward, one step backward.
After reaching the summit of Diamond Peak the rest of the course seemed quite runnable in comparison. I put my head down and plowed forward trying to ignore the fact that the sun was getting stronger and the temperatures were getting higher! While I was still making good time, I could already feel my body starting to weaken in the heat.

And then the hallucinations set in. Although I knew I must be imagining it, I was certain that I saw both an angel and a devil at the aid stations. It must have been the heat frying my brain!

Devil wears The North Face

A taste of heaven? A glimpse of hell?

After some steady running/hiking I reached the top of Snow Valley Peak, the highest point on the course at just under 9,000 ft. This is where I had been hit with elevation sickness back in 2009. However this year I felt fine (thank you altitude tent!). My legs were feeling a bit sore and stiff, so I popped a blue pill and hammered the seven miles of downhill running back to the start/finish area. I arrived in almost 10 hours exactly, just as planned!

The second loop (aka my pacer Jeremy Johnson saves the day)

Hammering that seven miles of downhill felt great at the time, but I probably should have run it a bit more conservatively. I had promised my pacer Jeremy that I would run the first loop conservatively and leave him "something to work with". But as I came into the start/finish area and saw him eagerly standing ready to go with fresh legs and a clean shirt, I immediately thought, "Oh shit, what did I get myself into".

I told Jeremy that I was going to need 5 or 10 minutes to change my socks and shoes and to re-tape my feet. While completely true, I was secretly also hoping it would buy me some time to catch my breath.

The second loop involved lots of walking with short bouts of running sprinkled in, inordinate amounts of whining and complaining, and numerous pleas to let me sit down and take a nap. Thankfully Jeremy was having none of it. He was a model of patience and encouragement. He ignored all my whining and complaining and told me I was doing great. He basically treated me like a small child, which was exactly what I needed at this point. Jeremy has four young kids at home, so he is quite skilled at dealing with children (as well as adult ultra runners who behave like children).

John and pacer (safety runner) Jeremy Johnson "running all that shit"

I'll spare everyone all the details, but basically the second loop was the same as the first except much slower and much more painful. In addition, as the temperature climbed into the mid 80's my stomach became less and less happy. I guess it's called nausea. I wasn't able to eat any solid food, or even think about solid food without gagging. Choking down energy gels even became difficult.

I discovered that if I held my breath and gulped them down with a mouthful of water I could usually get gels to go down the hatch. There was however the occasional "rejection". In particular, my stomach did not seem to appreciate the Vanilla flavored ones. Sorry to any runners who stepped in any sticky Vanilla flavored "puddles" on the trail!

I was hoping that my stomach would return as the day wound down and the temperatures fell back down. But unfortunately, my stomach never really got better, even when night fell. At one point I was able to eat a small piece of quesadilla that my teammate Noé Castañón handed me at an aid station. But aside from that and one or two small pieces of banana, I basically ran the whole race on energy gels and soda!

Jeremy kept prodding me on, refusing to let me lie down on the trail and take a nap. It felt like we were barely moving, but on the other hand no one had passed us. And then it happened. With about 15 miles to go another runner (Dalius Kumpa) and his pacer caught up to us. We let them go, but kept them in sight. At one point we passed them, and then at another point they passed us back. And then we passed them again.

With 6 miles to go, I heard voices and looked back. It was Darius and his pacer again. My legs were feeling dead, I was exhausted, and I was having trouble catching my breath. Jeremy and I stepped off to the side of the trail to let them pass and to have a quick energy gel. At this point I knew I had slipped from 8th place to 9th, but I was content to just jog it in for a sub 24 hour, top 10 finish.

The last 6 miles were mostly downhill or flat, with a couple of small rolling hills. However, I just couldn't bring myself to run more than a minute or so at a time. I tried everything. "John, just run to the next tree." "John, just run to the next rock". It was a suffer fest. My pacer Jeremy was very understanding. He kept me moving and even got me running again for a while by claiming he heard voices behind us. I think he was full of shit, but hey, it was exactly what I needed at the time.

As we approached the finish line with just a mile or two to go, I could see the headlights of Dalius and his pacer ahead of us. It looked like they only had a minute or two lead. Yet the will to fight had gone out of me. I didn't have the heart to switch into "predator" mode and try to reel them in. Plus, it would have been kinda "douchey" to try and run someone down in the last few hundred meters of a 100 mile race. Plus, I was tired as hell. So we just coasted in, content with 9th place and an epic sub 24 hour adventure through the mountains!

Looking like crap, but feeling on top of the world!

Finally able to sit down after 23 hours and 19 minutes on my feet!

Thanks again to my wonderful coach Caitlin Smith for getting me ready for this race, and to the world's greatest pacer Jeremy Johnson for keeping me moving and helping me achieve my two goals of a sub 24 hour finish and a top 10 placing! Thanks guys!

See you next year TRT!