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!


Jeremy said...

Next year?!? I thought you were moving on...

Great job out there! Thanks for the pacer props, but there was nothing that was going to keep you from finishing this year.

John Burton said...

LOL. The things we say in the heat of the moment. But I'm pretty sure that no one said to themselves "man I can't wait to come back next year and do this again" during the race as they were climbing up Diamond Peak for the second time :)

zapmamak said...

Hahaha! You did an awesome job! You inspire me. :-)