Tuesday, September 8, 2015

2015 Mountain Madness Fat Dog 120 Race Report

A cold and wet Fat Dog
photo by Team Riccardo
Short summary of my DNF at Fat Dog 120

OK, if you've purposely sought out this race report you are probably either: a) my mother, who is legally obligated to read anything I write, b) some weirdo who enjoys reading about other people's epic failures, or c) a concerned friend who wants to know how I managed to fuck up yet another race. In which case, definitely read on. 

Or perhaps you are a runner who is thinking about signing up for the Mountain Madness Fat Dog 120 Trail Race next year and you are scouring the Internet for race reports hoping to gain some nuggets of wisdom -- in which case, you're shit out of luck. The only thing you're going to learn from my race report is what NOT to do. However, you might enjoy this race report from Nickademus Hollon who won the race and broke the course record this year, or this report from my buddy Riccardo who finished 4th.

Or check out this spectator report from Mitch Leblanc or Mitch's race report from 2014 where he finished 2nd.

Or maybe you are just a beer geek looking for reviews on "Fat Tug" IPA from Driftwood Brewery in Victoria, BC. Which means you apparently typed "Fat Dog" instead of "Fat Tug". In which case... you're drunk, go home. But buy me a bottle of Fat Tug if you see it at the store. It's fucking amazing and we can't get it out here in California.

In any case, here's a short summary of what happened at Fat Dog this year. Basically, I tried to slip quietly off the front of the race early when no one was looking. I hoped that if I got out in front and then hammered the first two downhill sections like a crazy fucking nut job, I might be able to open a sizable enough lead to hold off the inevitable late charge of the speedy elites like Nickademus Hollon, Jeremy Humphrey, Chris Calzetta, Nick Pedatella, and others. 

But, as you probably guessed, it didn't work. Nickademus Hollon caught me around the 100K mark. We ran the next 18K together, which was awesome (he's an amazing guy). But I had been stumbling and falling on the tails all day, including a hard fall where I'd injured my hand. Then, approaching the Cayuse Flats aid station with Nick around mile 72, I inexplicably lost my balance and fell off a log-bridge crossing over a river bed. I narrowly avoided impaling myself on a bunch of sharp sticks in the river. That's when I decided to DNF. 

But the good news is that I got to join the crew of my good friend Riccardo Tortini who was in 6th place at the time and running strong. Riccardo eventually moved up to finish 4th! I can't say that I was a particularly useful or helpful member of "Team Riccardo". Mainly I just sat in the back seat of the Jeep, stinking to high heaven, and eating handfuls of Jujube candies in between naps. I sincerely apologize to Riccardo's girlfriend Tanya and her friends Jessica and Brett who had to endure the death-stench of my socks, shoes, and shorts (all of which I was forced to burn later as even boiling hot water and soap proved ineffectual in removing their horrible odor).

Sent home from work by HR again today
Where it all went wrong, part 1 (super-hero complex)

My greatest strength as a runner, and perhaps ironically also my biggest weakness, is my unwavering, unbridled, unmitigated, unrelenting, undying... and probably unfounded (if not utterly irrational) belief in myself. No matter how ridiculous the challenge, how miserable the conditions, or how absurdly stacked the starting field, I always feel that I can overcome the odds and win!

I might be ranked as low as 15th or 20th in the Ultrasignup.com race predictions, and I will look at the names of all the elite runners ranked way ahead of me and think to myself, "Oh fuck. Holy shit. I've got this motherfucker! This race is mine". It defies all common sense really.

Why, you might reasonably ask, does a guy who's never won a major race, go into every race thinking he can win? Excellent question. And like most excellent questions, the person answering the question is usually best served to just hem and haw for a few seconds before deftly deflecting the question by breaking into a peripherally-related anecdote.

So... did I ever tell you about that time at Hardrock where I shattered my finger into five pieces, almost got struck by lightening, and held off a late-charge from Timmy Olson? No? Well... sit down and make yourself comfortable while I start from the beginning. Actually, never mind. You can read about it here if you're interested. 

The point is... yes, there actually is a point... is that sometimes all it takes is just one small taste of modest success to make you start questioning your preconceived limitations. And nothing -- nothing in the world -- is more powerful (or more dangerous) than a person who believes that anything might be possible!

But irrational and unfounded belief in one's self -- no matter how powerful it might be -- is not enough to explain some of the ridiculous things I sometimes attempt in races. For example, there was that time I went out hard in the first half of the inaugural Lake Tahoe 200 Mile endurance run opening up an almost 5 hour lead on the field before my body shut down in the last 10 miles and I slipped from 1st to 3rd place. Or that time, more recently, when I decided to launch a mad-crazy-bust-your-shit-open attack just four miles into a 50 mile race (where I also ended up eventually slipping to 3rd place).

So there's definitely another factor in play in explaining my questionable race tactics (antics?). I think perhaps the other part of my issue is that, in addition to believing that I can accomplish anything if I try hard enough, is that I'm not particularly afraid of failure. I don't mind going for broke and coming up empty. I have no problem with taking a shot at glory and going home with a DNF when it doesn't work out. Other people, my wife in particular, find this infuriating. I can't count the number of times I've called her on the phone while she's in the car driving to see me at a race, telling her to turn around and go home because I've dropped out.

Cat napping cut into my training time
Where it all went wrong, part 2 (beer and cat naps)

Those of you who read my 2015 North Shore Knee Knackering 50K race report know that I have a score to settle with Vancouver (and British Columbia in general) after I got completely "knackered" by the brutal North Shore trails back in July. I shrugged off my lackluster performance at Knee Knacker blaming it on the humidity and/or a lack of early-summer fitness. But I'd be ready for Fat Dog in August I vowed! 

I'd intended to train for Fat Dog. I'd intended to train hard with months of 120 mile weeks. But... you know, shit got in the way. We adopted a cat from the shelter this summer; and every time I got dressed to go running she'd hop up on my lap and lay on my chest, preventing me from training.

Beer brewing/drinking also cut into my training
And then there was my ill-fated attempt at home brewing that after a month of hard work, resulted in about a gallon of remarkably unremarkable beer that compares favorably to a flat glass of Blue Moon or Shock Top that's been sitting out all night. Though in its defense I will say that what my brew lacked in body and mouthfeel, it made up for with a surprisingly high alcohol content. 

So... instead of training like a mad man for Fat Dog, I basically just sat around for a month getting drunk and petting my cat. Good times. As far as training goes, since I obviously didn't have time for long runs or high-volume training (due to my previously mentioned beer and cat-related commitments) I decided to focus almost exclusively on high-intensity interval workouts -- particularly short downhill sprints. Whether this would prove to be a good training strategy for a 200 kilometer race would remain to be seen.

Where it all went wrong, part 3 (quite possibly going out "slightly" too hard)
My pre-race plan was, as I mentioned in the intro above, to try and slip off the front of the race on the first climb and then slowly build a solid lead by hammering the shit out of the first couple of descents. But as soon as the race started I immediately found myself bottled up on the opening single-track in about 20th place, well behind the front runners. So much for my plan.

Since there was nothing I could do about the situation until the trail later widened, I just took it easy and chatted with my buddy Riccardo. We also struck up a conversation with elite pro runner Nickademus Hollon who was running near us. Nick is a talented young runner who is making a name for himself on the international ultra scene. I enjoyed our short chat, but as soon as the trail opened up I made my move and threw in an acceleration.

Me, Riccardo, and Nickademus at mile 1
photo by Team Riccardo
The problem was that, although I was slowly making my way up through the field and passing other runners, I had absolutely no idea of how many people were still ahead of me, or in which place I was. After about 9 miles of steady uphill running, we finally got to the top of the first climb and started descending. I stepped on the gas and bombed down the mountain, hoping to reel in some more of the front runners ahead of me.

Sections of the descent were fairly sketchy. At one point, I was legitimately wondering if perhaps I had missed a turn and strayed off the official trail and onto a deer path. But I was moving too fast to safely stop or slow down, so I just kept flying recklessly down the cliff side hoping that I was still on course. And then it happened. I lost my balance and began a long slow-motion fall off the side of the trail. Luckily I landed on a log. It hurt like hell, but it broke my fall. I was worried that it possibly also broke by hand, which immediately started hurting and swelling up. 

At this point I still had no idea in what place I was. I hadn't seen another runner in at least an hour. I figured that I was probably in the top 10, maybe 6th or 7th place. But I was worried because even though I was recklessly flying down the mountain out of control like a complete jackass, I wasn't catching or passing any other runners. No one else could possibly be stupid enough to run this descent this fast, so it didn't make any sense to me that I wasn't making up ground or passing anyone else. What the hell?

As I rolled into the first aid station at the bottom of the mountain I saw Tanya, my buddy Riccardo's girlfriend. She said something very confusing. "He's only two minutes ahead of you". She couldn't be taking about Riccardo, because he was behind me. "Who are you talking about," I asked with a puzzled look on my face. "The guy from Idaho," Tanya said, referring I gathered to Jeremy Humphrey. "What place am I in," I asked. "Second place," she replied! "Oh shit, that's not good," I blurted out, somewhat surprised to find myself so close to the lead so early into the race.

Tanya informing me that I'm already in 2nd place
photo by Team Riccardo
Then, in an adrenaline-fueled stupor I hammered the next mile of flat(ish) fire road and caught up to Jeremy just as he was turning off onto a the start of single-track climb. And it's a good thing I saw him or I very well might have missed that hard-right turn! We ran/hiked together for the next few miles. Well, sorta. I basically just power hiked the whole climb. Jeremy alternated between slow hiking and fast sprinting (or at least that's how it seemed to me). Every time I would catch up to him, he would throw in a burst of running and open up a bit of a lead. I found this strangely amusing and it helped pass the time.

Eventually we both finally settled into a compatible rhythm and we were able to chat while running/hiking together. He's a great runner and I was glad to be be able to share a few miles with him. Then suddenly he abruptly stepped off to the side of the trail and told me to pass, explaining that he often struggles a bit around 4 or 5 hours into races. 

I had no doubts that he would eventually catch back up and blow past me. But oddly, I never say him again. I later heard an unconfirmed account that he took a hard fall and possibly dislocated his shoulder and that, even though he wanted to continue, medical staff pulled him from the race. I hope he is OK. Unfortunately at the time of this writing, he hasn't yet updated his blog.

Outdoor Research Helium II waterproof jacket
and Montane waterproof pants :)
Shortly after taking the lead I started hearing rumbling in the sky behind me. The rumbling quickly turned to lightening. My next move was crucial; what should I do? Although I did have a thin light-weight nylon shell in my pack, I hadn't packed an actual raincoat or any warm clothes. And I was only wearing a sleeveless tee shirt. I knew that if I kept moving at my current pace and the storm caught up to me, I would be cold and miserable -- and likely end up DNFing with hypothermia.

My other option was to pick up the pace run like fuck with complete reckless abandon down the mountain and try to outrun the storm. This would be a foolhardy and risky choice with several negative potential outcomes including falling and injuring myself and/or completely trashing my legs on the long descent. Only a complete fool would try to try to out sprint a lightening storm down a mountain. So naturally that's what I opted to do.

Where it all went wrong, part 4 (falling off bridges and stumbling towards stupidity)

I won't go into all the minutiae of the next 10 hours. But basically I stayed one step ahead of the storm and made it safely to the Bonnevier aid station where my waterproof pants and jacket were waiting for me in my drop bag. Unfortunately, many of the other runners behind me got caught in the storm without warm gear or waterproof clothes and ended up DNFing due to hypothermia. My Bay-area friends Dan Decker and Franz Dill were among those unfortunate casualties.

Unfortunately for me, but I guess fortunately for him, Nickademus Hollon was not among those taken out by the storm. Despite the 40 or so minute lead that I had built going into the Bonnevier aid station at mile 40, I was worried that it wouldn't be enough to hold off Nick who is a notoriously strong finisher. And, as it would turn out, [spoiler alert], I was very right to be worried.

In the interest of time I will summarize the highlights of miles 40 - 60 as follows:  
  • Jessica made me a delicious industrial-sized grilled cheese sandwich that was probably at least 1000 calories and took me almost three full bottles of water to wash down.
  • My legs were getting very cold and wet from brushing up against all the wet plants on the overgrown trail from Bonnevier to Heather aid station when I suddenly remembered that I had a pair of light-weight waterproof pants in my pack. I stopped and put them on and instantly went from feeling cold, wet and miserable to feeling magically happy and warm. I imagined that I was on a tropical beach drinking giant buckets of Sangria.
  • My sunbathing and sangria fantasies were suddenly interrupted when I spotted a very large, very black bear on the trail in front of me. Without thinking, I instantly let out a loud blood-curling yell. In retrospect, this was a risky move that would likely have one of two effects: the bear might perhaps be startled and run off, or equally likely, the bear might turn and attack me. Luckily, the bear scampered off into the bushes. Then, for reasons that are still not clear to me, I decided to use the emergency whistle that the race organizers insisted we carry on our person as part of our mandatory gear. This tiny plastic whistle produced the most pathetic wimpy sounding tweet in the history of the world. I was immediately embarrassed, and more importantly worried that the bear might come back out of the bushes laughing at my feeble whistle and dismember me.
  • After refueling at the Heather aid station on top of the mountain, where it was very cold and windy as the sun was starting to set, I said goodbye to the aid station volunteers and wished them good luck. I was fairly certain that they would either all freeze to death in the night, or be eaten by the bear. It suddenly got very foggy leaving the Heather aid station just as the sun was setting. I was having problems seeing the trail in front of me. Turning on my headlamp proved useless and actually made things worse as it simply reflected off the fog causing a terrible glare. So instead I ran down the rocky, technical mountain in the dark fog. Not surprisingly, I started tripping and falling. I rarely, if ever, fall during a race. But I must have taken at least a dozen spills on that descent, some of them pretty hard. There was lots of profanity. A few death threats against the race organizers, and Canada in general, may have been uttered.
Finally it happened, as I feared. Nick caught me. Just as I was heading out of the Nicomen Lake aid station at around 100K, Nick came running in. My hopes were dashed. I guess I mumbled something passably complimentary to him like, "Hey Nick, you're moving well." Although what I was actually thinking was probably something more like, "Fuck, you're alive! I was hoping the bear had eaten you."

This isn't me (I crossed at night), but this is the log-bridge thing that I fell off
photo by Brian McCurdy

Even though I had been fairly certain that Nick would eventually catch me at some point, I had hoped that point would come later -- ideally sometime after mile 100. The race profile indicated that miles 80 - 100 were supposed to be relatively flat and runnable (at least compared to the rest of the course). And since Nick is a much faster flat runner than me, I knew he would be able to cover that 20 mile section much faster than I could. So my only chance of winning would have been to hit that section with a decent lead and try to hold him off on the last climb and descent.

So now I had to regroup and re-calibrate my goals and aspirations for the race. Instead of thinking about the win and/or course record, my new goal would be to hang on for 2nd place. I left the aid station a few minutes before Nick and it took a while for him to catch back up to me even though I stopped to pee at least twelve times on that section. When I finally heard him and saw his light approaching from behind and I stepped aside. To my surprise he invited me to run along with him. This was really cool of him as he could have easily blown by me. We spent the 18 kilometers running together and chatting. It was a bit surreal as he is a runner who I really admire (hell, the guy finished Barkley, a race that only a handful of people have ever finished). Anyway, that was definitely the highlight of my race!

Also not me (I wish I was that graceful). Overhead shot of the log I fell off
photo by Brian McCurdy

Unfortunately, my race would come to an abrupt end. Just as we were approaching the next aid station together at Cayuse Flats, we had to cross over a river on a fallen pair of logs that had been converted into a makeshift bridge. While Nick just trotted effortlessly across, I really struggled with my balance and coordination. Every step I took was tentative. And then, trying to duck under a small tree branch, I inexplicably lost my balance and toppled off the side of the log into the river.

Somehow I avoided getting impaled on any of the hundred or so sharp sticks pointing up in every direction. But my confidence was shook. That fall scared the shit out of me. I decided then and there to DNF. I was legitimately worried about my health. It may also have had something to do with the fact that I've suffered a couple of serious running related health injuries in the past few years. 

Three years ago I suffered a bad case of rhabdomyolysis after running myself into the ground during a hot and humid 50 mile race in Michigan. My kidney and liver both shut down and I peed blood for days afterward; it took me almost six months to resume racing again. Then last year I ran my body down during the Tahoe 200 and ended up struggling with adrenal fatigue syndrome which took me another five months to fully recover from.

Although I had already made my mind up to drop out of the race, I knew that I still had to get down off the mountain to the next aid station at the Cascades parking lot down by the highway, which was still 8 kilometers away. I didn't say anything to Nickademus about my plans to drop as he might try to talk me out of it. More importantly I was worried that he might do something overly generous like volunteer to slowly hike down with me instead of running, which would of course affect his chances of breaking the course record.

So I made an excuse about wanting to eat some soup and sent Nick on his way. He yelled back, "You've got 5 minutes. Don't stay at the aid station longer than 5 minutes." I smiled and waved. 

Riccardo taking a moment to savor the finish
photo by Team Riccardo
Second guessing?

It's easy to DNF. There are plenty of convenient excuses you can come up with to convince yourself that did the right thing by quitting. I'm looking after my long-term health. I didn't want to risk injury. I had terrible blisters. I had terrible chaffing. I was "border-line hypothermic" (i.e., I was kinda cold), I was tired. I wasn't having fun anymore. They all sounds good in the moment.

The true test is whether those excuses still satisfy you in the days after the race. Once you've taken that warm shower, slipped into clean dry clothes, stuffed yourself with food, and fallen asleep. When you wake up the next day are you still content with your excuse, or are you kicking yourself for having taken the easy way out?

In my case, you could rightfully point out that when I dropped at the Cascade aid station at mile 78 the hardest part of the course was already behind me. I done the worst of the technical descents. It would be daylight soon. The next 20 miles were all supposedly "flat and runnable" (well, relatively speaking anyway). And the last climb and descent would be in the daylight instead of the night, and was far less technical than the other descents I'd already done. Hell, I could have just jogged the flats, power hiked the climbs, and carefully walked down the descents and still probably finished in a top spot. 

But I didn't want to. I wasn't willing to put in the effort, endure the suffering, or risk the potential repercussions. I wasn't sure why I was stumbling and falling, and that really worried me. In retrospect it might just have been that my legs were fatigued from all the hard running early on. But whatever the case, it wasn't something I was willing to risk. And, a month later, as I write this blog I am still OK with my decision. Maybe I'll go back to Fat Dog some year and give it another shot. And maybe things will work out better. Or maybe I'll do all the same dumb shit all over again. But that's my choice. And I'm comfortable with it ;)

"Team Riccardo" from left to right:
Riccardo, Tanya, Jessica, and Brett
Shout outs!

Congrats to Nickademus Hollon for winning the race and breaking the course record -- and for doing it with grace and amazing sportsmanship.

I of course want to give a big shout out to my good friend Riccardo Tortini who ran a smart and controlled race all day (and night, and morning, and day) moving up from 6th place to finish 4th overall! 

Thanks also to Tanya, Jessica and Brett who drove hundreds (or perhaps even thousands?) of miles through the mountains, with little to no sleep, to cheer us on and keep our bellies full of warm delicious grilled cheese sandwiches, quesadillas, and guacamole-bean-rice tacos! You guys are the best!

And of course, thanks so much to all the amazing volunteers who spent the weekend camped out in cold, wet, miserable conditions. You rock! And to the folks on top of the mountain at the Heather aid station, I hope you weren't eaten by that bear!

Here's a link to the official race results. And here's my Strava data for the first 100K as well as the rest of my Strava data before I dropped at mile 78.

** UPDATE ** After DNF'ing in 2015, I came back to win the race in 2016! Click here to read my 2016 race report.


ultrademus said...

5 minutes John! 5 minutes dammit! Great read man :) You'll recover fast I'm sure and I look forward to seeing you at a future race soon! Only so many crazy ass races out there ;)

Big Johnny Burton said...

LOL. Thanks Nick! I actually recovered pretty quickly. I ended up running a 50 mile race the very next weekend while we were on a family vacation in Michigan! I haven't written up the race report yet but basically I attacked at mile 4 on the first downhill, got a decent lead, then got caught by two guys and ended up finishing 3rd overall, but wining the master's trophy. First old dude, yeah! Ha ha.

Congrats again on your win and course record! Good luck with your next crazy race, wherever that might be!

~ John