Thursday, August 18, 2016

2016 Mountain Madness Fat Dog 120 Race Report

Just a walk in the park... Manning Park
photo by Riccardo Tortini
The night before the the longest "100 miler" of my life

"The beer here sucks," my pacer Riccardo and I blurt out in unison. We stare blankly at the meager list of macro-lagers, periodically flipping the menu and then turning it back over again, hoping a decent craft brew will magically appear. But no luck. In an act of total desperation, I even try turning the menu upside down... and then shaking it vigorously. I throw it on the ground and stomp on it. Still not a single IPA or Saison.

Finally, when it seems that our waitress is losing her patience and thinking of calling the manager over to ask us to leave, I sigh and just order a fucking Peach Sangria. Riccardo flashes me a look of surprised disapproval that says, "Dude, that's a chick drink". I throw him a defiant glance that snarls, "Shut up homie, or I'll shank you with this spoon I've been sharpening under the table". And so, at the pre-race dinner the night before the race, the quintessential battle between pacer and runner has already begun.

Riccardo, who finished 4th last year at Fat Dog and has the 6th fastest finish of all time on the course, has offered to pace me this year. The hope is that he can keep me from repeating the same mistakes I made last year when I went out an hour ahead of course record pace in the first 50 kilometers... a strategy which proved hilariously disastrous. You can read more about my folly here in my 2015 Fat Dog DNF Report.

As our food arrives, Riccardo tries to immediately establish dominance in our pacer-runner relationship by putting on a defiant show of force at the dinner table. He stuffs slice after slice of pizza into his mouth, wolfing down three quarters of his pizza while I struggle with just my second slice. Clearly he is a not a man with whom to be trifled. I bow my head in acquiescence, silently agreeing to follow his race strategy and instructions.

Shout out to my "sponsor" Astroglide.
#Asstrordinary #Sexicitement
Riccardo takes his role of crew-chief and pacer very seriously. Not only has he thoroughly studied and memorized every paragraph of the entire 28-page race guide, but he's also arrived carrying several dozen color-coded binders containing everything we would possibly need -- and if I am to be honest, probably lots of stuff we probably wouldn't.

He has maps and driving directions in multiple language including English, French, Italian, and Inuit; detailed local weather reports of historic high and low temps, rainfall and barometric pressure from the last 100 years; splits from all the past years' winners; and Ultrasignup results and rankings of all the runners in the race. I'm pretty sure I even saw several classified government documents.

Whereas my main race preparation had consisted of watching this YouTube video. But hey, we all have our part to play. I didn't want to get bogged down with studying "trivial" information like the race elevation profile, course markings, aid-station names, distances between aid, or how to stay alive in a lightning storm. Nope, no time for any of that.

My main job was just to be ready to run/hike/slowly-stumble 120 miles of steep, rocky terrain across the Canadian Cascades mountain range with a cumulative elevation gain of around 29,000 feet -- the equivalent of climbing to the top of Mt. Everest. I'd shown up with some decent fitness, two socks and a pair of running shoes. Oh, and a giant tube of Astroglide sex lubricant. Because, you know, chaffing.

Taking it (relatively) easy and taking the lead

As we stood around at the starting line, I decided to do a set of pull-ups on the rafters of the bulletin board to try and psych out my competition. I'm not sure that it really had the desired effect. People probably just thought I was an idiot; Or maybe some cross-fit bro who wandered out of his box and got lost in the woods. But speaking of fit folks, I also got a chance to talk at the starting line with super-fit looking Angela Shartel, who [Spoiler Alert] would go on to win the women's race.

My pacer Riccardo had made me promise to go out more conservatively this year than I had last year when I charged off up the mountain like a complete lunatic. So I did my best to restrain myself on the steep, long first climb up Red Mountain, hanging just outside the top ten. My time up this 8-mile section (with an average grade of 10%) was 14 minutes slower than last year -- over a minute and a half slower per mile!

Lame effort to intimidate competitors with pull-ups
However, despite my best efforts, I wasn't able to restrain myself quite as well on the downhill and I ended up passing a few other runners and moving up into 6th place by the time we hit the Ashnola River aid station at the bottom of the descent at mile 18. I wasn't really trying to move up or run hard, so I can only speculate that perhaps gravity has a much stronger effect on me, as an American, since my weight of 160 pounds is nearly double the 75 kg average weight of my Canadian competitors :)

Somewhere on the descent I smacked my knee into a huge rock. I remember seeing the big rock in the middle of the trail and thinking, "that's a pretty big rock; I should probably run around it." Yet instead I ran smack into it. Warm sticky red liquid immediately started seeping out of my knee and dripping down my leg. "That's probably not good," I remember thinking.

When I got down to the Ashnola aid station, my pacer Riccardo informed me that I was in 6th place. He also started giving me a bunch of "intel" about the guys ahead of me including how far ahead they each were, what their Ultrasignup scores were, what city they were from, their favorite color, whether they were gluten intolerant and/or had any shellfish allergies, etc. I filed the information away for later in case there was going to be quiz or something.

As I left the aid station, Riccardo told me, "just take it easy." [Spoiler Alert]: I did not take it particularly easy. In fact, just four miles later, somewhere around Trapper Lake, I had suddenly caught and passed all the other runners and found myself in the lead. "Shit, Riccardo is not going to be happy about this," I muttered to myself as I inhaled a couple of delicious HoneyStinger gels, figuring I better stay on top of my calories now that I was in the lead.

Running scared

I hadn't intended to push hard on this section because I still have nightmares about chasing Jeremy Humphries up this climb last year. So instead, this year I just settled into a comfortable, steady pace and power-hiked up the hill. I even stopped at one point to dump some rocks out of my shoes. So I was quite surprised when I caught up to the leaders.

Not quite Rucky Chucky :)
photo by Brian McCurdy
I exchanged some quick pleasantries with each of my fellow runners in the lead pack that included Bryan Hitchcock, Ullas Narayana, Patrick McAuliffe, and Gennadii Tertychnyi. But I didn't want to stick around and chat.

My motto is that if you are going to bother taking the lead, you should do it decisively -- with an awe-inspiring, soul-crushing, completely-excessive, superfluous show of force! When you pass someone, you want them to know that they've been passed for good; that they're never going to see you again... until the award's ceremony :)

As I finally crested Flattop Mountain, I looked back to see if I could ascertain how much of a lead I had over my competitors. Although I could see at least one person in the distance, I couldn't tell if he was one of the 120 Miler runners who I had passed, or maybe a relatively fresh-legged relay runner making up ground?

I must have some shampoo in this pack somewhere!
Photo by Brian McCurdy
At bottom of the descent, just before the Pasayten River, I was caught by the runner I'd seen behind me, who thankfully turned out to be in the relay. We then caught another relay runner, and the three of us crossed the river and ran the paved road into the Bonnevier aid station at mile 41.

My pacer Riccardo seemed surprised to see me in the lead. He paced me up the hill and gave me a pep talk which basically consisted of, "don't do anything stupid; and try not to get eaten by bears."

Trying not to get eaten by bears

As I mention in my 2015 Fat Dog DNF Report, last year I ran into a large black bear on the course, a couple kilometers before the Heather aid station, while running alone in the lead -- in the dark. It was a pretty funny encounter (at least in retrospect) that involved me trying to scare the bear off with the world's smallest, most feeble-sounding, tiny plastic whistle.

This year, right around the same spot, I looked down on the trail and saw a bloody deer leg, or at least part of a leg. It had clearly been chewed off just above the knee. And it was laying right in the middle of the trail. I thought about picking it up and potentially using it as a weapon in case I was attacked by whatever had killed and eaten the rest of the deer. I imagined the newspaper headlines: "California man bludgeons grizzly bear to death with severed deer leg."

Yeah. Happy party time. 
However, I figured that whatever had eaten the rest of the deer was probably -- hopefully -- already quite full. And I wasn't particularly excited about the prospect of fighting a grizzly, especially after having just recently watched The Revenant. So I continued on up to the peak and then down the out-and-back descent down to the Heather aid station. I did take some solace from that fact that at least one or two of the relay runners were ahead of me, so if the bear / wolves / mountain lion / Sasquatch got hungry again, there were a couple of tasty hors d'oeuvres trotting along the trail ahead of me.

The folks at the Heather aid station were in great spirits, completely unaware that just a mile above them, something was running around the forest ripping limbs off woodland creatures. I decided not to mention it. Instead a devoured a quesadilla, which tasted absolutely f**king amazing. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Canadians make decent Tex-Mex. I had been worried, quite needlessly, that Canadian quesadillas might contain something odd like maple syrup, peameal bacon, or poutine!

I also narrowly avoided disaster when the volunteers almost filled my bottles with Tequila when I inquired if they had any sports drink. Apparently "sports drink" means something quite different in Canada than in the US! Anyway, climbing out of the Heather aid station, sans Tequila, I ran into 2nd and 3rd place runners Ullas and Patrick who were just starting the descent. I estimated that I had about a 30 minute lead over Ullas and a 35 minute lead over Patrick. While it certainly felt good to know I had a decent cushion and some breathing room, I also knew that I still needed to keep moving strong as the race wasn't even half over yet!

Trying not to get eaten by... porcupines?

Somewhere along the trail down from Heather to Nicomen Lake I spotted two large black animals on the trail ahead of me. I instantly came to a halt. "Shit, bear cubs!" I exclaimed. Not that I was terribly worried about the cubs themselves, as I think I could probably take a couple of furry toddlers in a fist fight. No, I was more concerned about the whereabouts of the mother.

Thankfully, I quickly realized that the two animals were not actually bears but rather giant (possibly mutant) porcupines -- enjoying a romantic evening rendezvous in the moonlight. [Sidenote: I'd always wondered how porcupines make love without the male limping off afterwards with penis full of quills.]

Random porcupine pic from the Internet
The rest of the descent down to Nicomen Lake was pretty uneventful. Whereas last year I had taken several hard falls on the rocky, technical section in the foggy rain, this year the weather was perfect and I managed to stay (more or less) on my feet. Arriving at Nicomen lake at mile 62 (i.e. only the half-way point), I could already smell warm pierogies cooking on the skillet. I am happy to report that the they were quite delicious and were not stuffed with poutine or moose hearts or anything odd.

The next section, a long 18K descent from Nicomen Lake down to Cayuse, brought back some memories. This was the section that Nickademus Hollon and I had run together last year, chatting and sharing stories, en route to his win and course-record. This year I had no one to talk to -- except for a handful of frogs who didn't seem particularly interested in hearing my story about how I once held off Timmy Olson at Hardrock.

Eventually I arrived at Cayuse and avoiding falling off the log-bridge and injuring myself and DNF'ing like I did last year. After a quick bottle refill I headed out and began trudging up the series of super steep climbs up to the Cascades aid station. I tackled each of these mini-Mt.Everest climbs with everything I had, which at this point mainly just consisted of me shuffling along and mumbling a chain of non sequitur curse words under my breath. But what is it they say, "work with what you've got," right?

My pacer Riccardo tries to make me do some actual running. #WTF

Runner John (left) and pacer Riccardo (right)
Several thousand creative curse words later I shuffle into the Cayuse aid station at mile 80. My pacer Riccardo is in good spirits, smelling slightly of Tequila [but I don't ask]. He's excited and ready to go.

In my head I imagine that Riccardo is one of those loud, yappy, excitable little Chihuahua jumping all over the place and ripping the stuffing out of pillows; whereas I am a tired old Labrador or Newfoundland with hip dysplasia and arthritis, and callused bald patches on my elbows, who just wants to nap in the shade with his bone.

Riccardo: "OK John, here's the plan! We'll run this 10 mile section pretty fast, and then we'll really hammer the next 10 miles after that! Yeah, yeah, yeah! What do you say!"

John: "Fuck you Riccardo."

That's pretty much the conversation that we had, on repeat, for the next 10 hours. Riccardo, to his credit, is an amazing pacer. He knows when to push a runner, and when to back off. And more importantly, he knows when to gently stretch the truth a bit, and when to outright lie.

"The next turn is just a kilometer up the road," Riccardo proclaims optimistically at one point. While I desperately want to believe him, we are on a straight flat stretch of highway that we can both clearly see goes on for at least several more miles. Still, I decide I might as well play the game and mumble, "Ok, thanks [asshole]."

Boo. Sad head-down hiking time.
"The next aid station is just around the corner; I can hear the volunteers," Riccardo bluffs somewhat convincingly. Meanwhile we are still in the middle of nowhere, miles from the next station. The only noise I hear is the buzzing of mosquitoes as they drain the last of my blood as we fumble toward Shawatum.

"This is definitely the last climb," Riccardo blatantly lies after we summited only the third of the final "seven false summits" that the race director warned us about at the pre-race briefing. Still, I start to doubt myself and my math skills. Maybe I lost track? Maybe I was so distracted by the view and/or the pain from my blisters that I miscounted? But nope. It was all just a clever ruse to keep me plodding forward.

"You've definitely got the win; Nobody is going to catch you now," Riccardo confidently assures me. "But just in case... we better hammer this last section," he waffles nervously, looking back over his shoulder down the mountain behind us. Unbeknownst to us, the 2nd place runner, Ullas, has gradually whittled my lead down from a high of 42 minutes to just 20 minutes at the final aid station at Skyline Junction with 7 miles to go.

Sprinting down the mountain (in slow motion)

"Pouring like an avalanche, coming down the mountain..."
Photo by Brian McCurdy
As we make our way down the ragged mountain, my foot catches a rock and I go flying head first, arms stretched out in front of me, crashing to the ground. I'm fine, but I lay there motionlessly enjoying the brief respite, wondering how long I can milk this before Riccardo makes me get up and resume running. A second later, I hear, "You're fine. There's no blood. Get up." Damn, he's on to me.

Riccardo and I gingerly tiptoe down the rest of the steep rocky descent, trying to avoid another fall. Finally we reach the treeline and the trails becomes more runnable, switching from rocky scree to hard-packed dirt. For the first time all day, I start to let myself believe that I might actually win. Fueled by adrenaline I start bombing down the mountain at what feels like at least 6:30 minute-per-mile pace, but which Riccardo's GPS later reveals to actually be 9:30 minute-per-mile pace. LOL.

In my head I'm already picturing myself crossing the finish, visualizing different potential celebratory antics. Maybe I drop to the ground and roll across the finish line like Scott Jurek? Or maybe "brush my shoulder off" and thump my chest like one of those 100 meter sprinters who run with three gold chains and diamond earrings? Or maybe... Suddenly my foot catches a tree root and I'm launched head first into the ground again -- but much harder than any of the previous times.

"Making their way, the only way they know how..."
Photo by Brian McCurdy
I wait to hear Riccardo's familiar voice informing me that nothing's wrong and chastising me to get up. But there's only silence. Shit, that must have been a really bad fall if even Riccardo is worried. After a second or two my breath returns and I stumble back to me feed and slowly start hobbling down the hill again. My knee is bleeding and hurting, and my shorts are full of dirt and pine needles, but we've probably only got another 2 miles or so to go. I can do this.

As the Lightning Lake and the finish line finally come into sight, I'm overcome with emotion. I turn to Riccardo and thank him for everything. After ten and half hours of running side-by-side in lockstep I feel that we are now connected by an invisible bond. That we are one. I stop and turn to high five him, but he reaches in for a hug and we both miss awkwardly. I try to salvage the moment and offer him a fist bump, but he's already coming in with a high five and slaps my fist. The whole thing is embarrassingly comical. I'm just hoping that no one's getting any of this on film.

With women's champ Angela Shartel
Photo by Brian McCurdy
Seconds later I cross the finish line in 28 hours and 21 minutes, teary-eyed and exhausted. We'd done it! I've won. While I've had a couple good races in the past including 3rd place at Tahoe 200 and 12th at Hardrock, this is the first time I've ever won a major ultra. I'm beside myself. I'm on top of the world. I'm feeling invincible! And then suddenly I'm laying down in the medical tent covered in blankets being spoon-fed warm broth. Ah yes, welcome to ultra running :)

Here's a link to the official results. Although I was initially disappointed that my winning time from this year was much slower than the times from last year, I should add the course was extended this year and included an additional 2 miles and an extra 800 foot climb. And while my time is hours slower than the course record time of Nickademus Hollon, I did manage to just bump my buddy Riccardo out for the 6th fastest time ever on the course. Sorry Riccardo. He he.

It's [not] all about the buckle

After the award's ceremony Sunday afternoon, a few of us were sitting around sipping on some beers and decompressing. It had been a long, hard weekend -- for runners, volunteers, and race directors alike. The volunteers had already taken down the inflatable finish line banner, tossed out the last of the post-race BBQ food, and started packing up the chairs and trash.

With bad-ass Clifford Matthew!
Suddenly across the lake we saw another runner approaching. He had missed the 49 hour cut-off by at least an hour. There were no cheering crowds. There would be no shiny buckle waiting for him at the finish line. Heck, there wouldn't even be a finish line waiting for him at the finish line. But he didn't care. He had an ear-to-ear smile on his face as he ambled toward us.

I was immediately overcome with admiration and respect. This is what ultra running is about. Testing yourself against the mountain. Testing yourself against yourself. I immediately ran over and introduced myself and congratulated him on his finish -- officially recognized or not. And, although I'm sure I'll probably get in trouble by the race organizers for this, I happily presented him with my own finisher's buckle.

So congratulations Clifford Matthews of Albuquerque, New Mexico for inspiring us all. Speaking with Cliff afterwards, he mentioned that if others are as inspired by him as I was, he would urge them to get involved with their local Search and Rescue organization and/or Team RWB -- two causes very near and dear to him. So please do consider those. Thank you.

More shout outs and thank yous!

Winning relay team, The Lost Planet Trailmen
  • Congrats to women's champion Angela Shartel whose late-race surge capped off an amazing come-from behind victory! And for that matter, congrats to everyone who suffered out there all weekend and challenged themselves on this amazing course!
  • Congrats to relay team, The Lost Planet Trailmen, a group of former UBC Thunderbird track runners who came just seconds away from breaking the course record, despite the longer and tougher course!
  • Congrats also to my Bay Area homeboy Chris Eide who completed FatDog120 only five weeks after having to drop out of Tahoe Rim Trail 100 with a stress fracture in his foot. Chris, you are one bad hombre!
  • "Big ups" to my buddy, crew-chief and pacer, Riccardo Tortini, who put up with over 10 hours of me being grumpy and giving him the silent treatment. Best of luck at your race in Pine-2-Palm next month my friend!
  • Special thanks to my wife Amy, my mom, and the rest of my family for supporting me and making it possible for me to skip town and head off into the mountains of British Columbia for a "fun little vacation".
  • Thank you so much to all the race volunteers who gave up days/weeks/months of their time to make this race possible: sawing and removing hundreds of fallen dead trees from the course; hiking thousands of liters of water up the mountain; standing around for hours at night in the cold to feed and cheer on tired, grumpy runners; fending off armies of biting flies and mosquitoes on top of the mountain; and standing over a hot stove cooking hundreds of post-race burgers. You guys are the best in the business. Thank you so much!
  • And finally, thank you to HoneyStinger Nutrition for hooking me up with some great-tasting all-natural energy. Mmm, yum. Good stuff


Larry Neumann said...

Great writeup as always John. It occurs to me that this is your single best chance to become a Strava sponsored athlete, given that Strava is your running coach. After all, if they hadn't invented CRs, you wouldn't know how fast to sprint between 0.2 and 1.0 miles at a time as a training strategy. Pitch it to them, they'll be all over it! Congrats again.

Michael Jimenez said...

Maybe the best race report I've ever read. Perfect blend of funny and excitement. Great read, great race, congrats Champ!

Jeremy said...

You tha man!

tja said...

The guy at the finish line kind of looks like Jeff Clowers after a few days of no shaving.

Stephanie T. Bernard said...

What an awesome write up! So much fun to read and inspiring. Now I am pumped for my marathon training tomorrow. Congratulations John!

julison said...

John - great to meet you and Riccardo, and thanks again for the ride before the start, which was actually very encouragng for me! I miss the bay area and hope to see you there, or in silverton, or somewhere else again before too long. Congratulations on a fantastic and well-deserved win!

Unknown said...

Well executed race man, right down to importing the Pliny! Thanks for sharing at the awards on Sunday. Hope to cross paths again at another race. Cheers, Bryan (from Juneau)

Jeremy C said...

Great report. I went back and read your 2015 report as well. Very funny writing style. Only one question - what's your aversion to having maple syrup inside all foods :D

I paced my buddy Legs 3 and 4 and can't wrap my head around the full monty you guys did!

Big Johnny Burton said...

Thanks @JeremyC, and just to show that I have no aversion to putting Maple syrup in almost anything, right now I am drinking a bourbon-barrel aged stout beer that was brewed with Maple syrup. So yummy!

jack said...

Great report and nice chatting with you at Tennessee Valley the other night.