Sunday, June 1, 2014
I'd really enjoyed running the rolling jeep road of the gorgeous Valles Caldera section, and just come through the aid station at mile 25.4. You're in a volcanic valley a couple miles wide, surrounded by tall green mountains on either side, with occasional pools of water in the tall brownish colored grass to either side. It had been turning dark throughout that section, with a few distant rumbles of thunder, though no lightning. As it started to rain, I stopped, pulled the shell off the back of my hydration vest pack, pulled out my water-repellent EMS hat, and zipped up the jacket and put the hood over my hat.
A steady light rain turned heavier as the course markings had you make a left off the dirt road and into the deep grasslands, running maybe a mile across it toward the steep climb up the saddle between Pajarito and Cerro Grande mountains. I noticed it was raining at sort of a 45 degree angle created by the wind. Big robust drops. "Pretty cool," I thought, "feels like I'm on the moors of the Scottish Highlands." After the first few minutes going through the grass, the three or so runners way off in the distance had disappeared up the mountain, and that was the last I would see of any soul for the harrowing next five miles or so.
The calm before the storm on the Caldera
As you left the Caldera floor, the off-trail section, with its orange flags every 20-30 yards to guide you, turned steeply upward. Now it was rocks and stones, interspersed with some of the grassy stuff, along with downed trees, and was increasingly muddy. As I navigated that gnarly combination of uphill terrain making use of my trekking poles, often having to stop to figure out which was the flags were taking me in this trail-less section and having to hoist myself over downed trees, the rain turned to sleet. No biggie, I thought-- back in '08 I remembered encountering flurries under a sunny sky precisely in this area of the race, up on the top of Cerro Grande ("Big Peak") which was off and above to my right--now closed to the race due to the 2010 Las Conchas forest fire.
Soon the sleet turned to flurries, as I got higher up the mountain, the crest of the saddle and flatter ground still nowhere in sight, visibility diminishing by the minute. And then the flurries gave way to big flakes, and I noticed the white stuff was accumulating on the ground.. It was getting colder by the minute, and my fingertips and hands were getting cold with the baseball gloves I'd just bought and cut the fingertips off a day prior to leaving home in NYC (per the suggestion of a bikes sales guy at a store)--all this so I'd have a warm-weather option for resisting hand chafing with the poles. I thought, "Why did I change out of the warmer full bike gloves I'd been wearing at the 18 mile aid station?", making use of my drop bag at the Ski Lodge aid station. It had been in the mid-60s or more at that moment, sunny, and I didn't expect to be encountering snow or super chilly temps, having already been once to the highest point on the course on Pajarito ski mountain where it wasn't too nippy and I was comfortable with just my short sleeve, arm warmers, and vest.
(Springsteen once sang) I don't want to fade away...in that snow!
The white stuff is comin' down hard...and my mountaineering gear is back home in dry storage!
As I continued the ascent, I thought to myself how ironic it was to be encountering this kind of weather after a hard winter of running trails in and around New York with a lot colder temsps and more snow--and then climbing Mt. Whitney in mid-March on a four-day alpine mountaineering expedition. On all those occasions, though, I'd been prepared and had the right gear, but none of the three forecasts I checked was talking about snow in late May even up at 9 or 10K elevation! To warm my hands, I resorted to a mountaineering trick, stopping to put my poles down and stuff my hands in my crotch. Later on, in order not to lose momentum, I put both poles in one hand, and alternated stuffing one and then the other right on the skin of my belly. I kept zipping the front of the jacket until the opening for my face was as small as possible.
As I crested the saddle, the flags led me across a grassy meadow, still no trail in site, and the "path" was quite slick as it started to turn downhill. Something like an inch on the ground, accumulating fast. I flashed back to the long grassy section we'd had in this area in the '08 race, which I remembered as being pretty cool.. I should have been able to make good time and pick up the poles and glide the downhill (figuratively but hopefully not literally). I really needed to, also, as I kept looking at my glacial mile splits on my GPS and realized I needed to hustle to make the next two hard cutoffs as miles 31 and then 38. The conditions and terrain had really slowed down the great progress I'd been making for the last couple hours. But I found I needed to tread carefully and keep using the poles. The last thing I needed was to fall and hurt myself, halfway through a tough section amidst a freak May snowstorm that showed no signs of relenting.
As the grassy off-trail section gave way to an actual single track trail, mostly trending downhill, the snow gave way to a steady chilly rain. Perfect hypothermia conditions, I thought, must be just above freezing, my base layers are chilled, legs cold with just Race Ready shorts, and hands f...in' freezing. It was getting really hard to grip the poles, but I wanted to keep them handy . I briefly started feeling sorry for myself and whimpering a little. Not because I thought I wouldn't make it out of there in one piece. I trusted my backwoods survival skills and cold weather experience enough there. But because I knew, with how this was slowing things down, that the smooth progress through the last two hard cutoffs and on toward a finish was increasingly in jeopardy. And I knew that a return trip to Pajarito Mountain loomed after the next aid station, cresting out at 10,400' or so, and it must be snowing like the blazes up there! I could hear the window whistling in the canyon as I headed toward Pajarito Canyon aid station miles ahead, and especially up toward the top of the mountain. Twice I yelled out loud to the forest around me, "Keep your sh.... together! Don't panic!"
I was thrilled to be back at Jemez after six years. It was going to be my final and longest tune-up race before a return date with the Bighorn 100 four weeks hence. And I was happy to be accompanied by good friend Steve Cooper from Maryland, also training for Bighorn. I was also curious about how much the 2010 fire had altered the character of the course, which I remembered as being truly epic, reaching three different peaks above 10,000 feet.
The race proved to be as well organized and marked as ever, despite a brief wrong turn I took as we entered the property of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, around mile eight;. The mountainous single track had plenty of twists and turns, and just enough rocks to satisfy an Eastern trail runner while still being conducive to running or some fascimile thereof when it wasn't too steep. The views back down toward the town of Los Alamos, and of the Sangre de Cristo mountains north of Santa Fe in the distance, were spectacular. Fortunately, I'd brought a camera this time, and was reminded, when runners craned their necks or stopped for the views or stopped to take pictures, that I should spare a few second to do the same.
Eerily beautiful--views of and from the course in the early miles
Somewhere around four and a half hours in, as it got warmer and we climbed upward over a section rising some 3000' for our first encounter with Parajarito Mountain, I had a little crisis. I was feeling a little weak, sightly lightheaded (particularly once when I bent over to pick up something I'd dropped and it hit me when standing back up), breathing pretty hard and was getting passed by a lot of 50K'ers (who'd started any hour later) and some 50 milers. Not hyperventilating or anything that dramatic, just working way harder than I thought I should be that early in the race. I also feared I was nearing dreaded DFL place. We were probably at around 88,500 feet. So I stopped to regroup and got off to the side of the trail beside a tree, reached into my pack for two Advil and half a Vivarin caffeine tablet, and took half a package of energy chews. In retrospect, it was probably a combination of the quick rise in elevation for my unacclimatized sea level lungs, not eating quite as frequently as I should with my "small frequent bites" approach, the rising temperatures, and just that point somewhere in the range of three to five hours into a race when I usually experience a temporary lull in energy.
I quickly rallied after the short stoppage and my "med break," got into a better climbing rhythm, and felt my breathing stabilizing. So I actually felt better as we topped out on Pajarito, passing four 50 milers, than I had felt most of the way up. The views from up there were primo, and it was so cool to pass chairlifts and stare down various slopes with names like "Breathless" and "Precious" (those two marked "experts only"!), as we traversed the top of the ski mountain, before heading down. "Down" meaning some steep sections right down slopes, and at other points traversing slopes and running through the woods between slopes and past and over wooden bridges designed for mountain bikers! One guy I passed said something about this not being his type of section, as he slammed on the brakes so as not to go tumbling down a 30 or more degree gradient.
The only lifts running today were of the two-legged variety!
An assortment of slopes for your downhill running pleasure!
Looking back down the trail switchbacking up Pajarito Mountain
Looking down on the Valles Caldera from atop Pajarito Mountain (ca. 10,440')
After about 13 minutes at the Ski Lodge station reloading food and water, reapplying sunscreen,swapping out gloves, etc., I had a pretty good section on the nearly three miles of dirt road and then single track to Pipeline. Somewhere in the middle a shirtless guy passed me quickly, one of what I assumed were the faster of the 50k'ers who were whizzing by periodically and probably a knockoff of the "one and only" shirtless ultraunner dude. But then the two runners ahead of me asked him "Are you Anton?," he replied yes, they said excitedly "you're lapping us," and I quickly reached for my camera to try to capture the famous Tony Kripucka in the distance. He would go on to finish in a scorching fast 8:07 (the women's winner, Diane Finkely, came in in 10:23). I had just watched the gripping DVD movie of his epic battle with other top runners in the 2010 Western States 100, "Unbreakable," not three days before, where he ended up a close second.
Hey, it's the naked guy!
After Pipeline the descent to the Caldera on the infamous talus slope was even hairier than I remembered from '08 (photos like the one below just can't capture that amount of verticality--were it a snow slope and we were mountaineering, we would have been roped up in a team with ice ax and crampons, suffice to say, perhaps even on belay). Only poles and some handholding of logs and crabwalking and butt-sliding enabled me to stay upright as I SLOWLY traversed down.
Down, down, down into the abyss!
The ensuing caldera section was a highlight. I felt good and was able to run most of the rolling dirt road with the endless vistas ahead (albeit of an increasingly dark sky) and of high mountains on either side. Although a couple runners who were really booking passed me. As I came in to Valle Grande aid station, the runner coming up on me asked for the mileage, and I noticed for the first and only time in the race the official mileage coincided with my Garmin (25.4). The first raindrops fell then as I was talking to one of the young children with the volunteers there. It made me think of my 3-year-old Mihiret back home, and I was feeling strong and in good spirits. Little did I know what lay ahead! All of which brings me back to my story....
All's Well That Ends...Safe, Warm and Dry!
My exhortations to myself during the winter-like storm, as I worked my way up the saddle and then over it and toward and down Pajarito Canyon--no one in sight in either direction as far as the eye could see-- were pretty basic: "Don't panic," "Keep moving," that kind of stuff. I didn't have any more layers to put on, and my fingers and hands were getting stiff. Alternating putting one then another against the bare skin of my belly as I ran brought some temporary relief, as I kept switching my poles to the other hand. This wasn't a time to stop and stow them, and besides I wanted to have them handy as the trail was slick even as it headed downhill. The last thing I wanted was to fall and twist an ankle so far from aid, and I assumed there were no other runners behind me (though I found out later there were four of five remaining).
The change back from snow to rain as I descended into the canyon and onto an actual trail was a mixed blessing at best--my feet and legs were wet, core clammy, and I felt colder with the rain than with the snowflakes. I could hear the wind whipping above me on what I took to be Pajarito Mountain, though fortunately it wasn't blowing too strong where I was, with the protection of the canyon. Unfortunately, this was one of those interminable sections, longer than advertised (6.95 by my GPS, as opposed to the 6.0 on the official race chart). Rather than being worried I wouldn't make it to safety, my concern was really more about the time I was losing to the cold and slower conditions, spoiling what was shaping out to be a good race (I was about an hour and a half under the first hard cutoff at mile 18.6). I wondered: Would I (a) make the next cutoff at 3:30 PM at the upcoming aid station at Pajarito Canyon (official mile 31.4) and (b) make it there with enough margin to have a decent shot at making the 5PM hard cutoff back at Ski Lodge--with a cold, snowy, windy climb up Pajarito lurking to get there? Should I plan to drop at the Canyon aid station even if I had a margin, and would the Canyon aid station volunteers start quizzing me about how I felt, convincing me I should drop? This second 3:30 cutoff had only been announced race morning (or maybe at the prerace briefing the night before we didn't attend, not sure--how "hard" was it anyway?. I thought ahead to my small drop bag at this station--I couldn't remember if maybe I had another shell there (or was it at the bigger dropbag at 38?), maybe a pair of gloves, but would the bag be sitting out and would the rain have soaked through the bag and inner stuff sack? For sure, I knew I had more substantial layers and a dry pair of socks and Goretex shoes way further ahead of 38, but what good was that? Would there at least be hot liquids here at 31 so I could warm up a little?
These were the questions swirling in my head, as I forged ahead. There were some shivers, but it never started to get uncontrollable, thank goodness. I felt like if I stopped, it would. The shell was my salvation, as was getting to lower ground, and being in a canyon. All this in a section that seemed to go on forever where I expected the aid station a full mile before it came. And one with very sparing markings, maybe only every mile or so, so I thought, not such a great place or time to get off-trail! But at least I sort of remembered the section from '08, and there were very few places where you might make a wrong turn.
My hopes of getting in by 3PM came and went, But my inclination was to at least soldier on toward the last hard cutoff at mile 38--that would be a decent amount of mileage, 50K++, on a course that was very good prep for Bighorn four weeks away. And with a good climb and descent, I might even make the 38 cutoff, who knows? Never stop running when you're ahead of the cutoffs! I thought maybe this was one of those localized, passing mountain storms, so I didn't know quite what it was like elsewhere on the course. Maybe better? And I still was moving halfway decent, though I wasn't eating or drinking much (incredibly, however, I had to stop and pee a couple times, maybe with all the rain as aural stimulation?!). I figured the temperature must have been in the upper 30s to lower 40s by that time. As I got closer to what turned out to be the aid station, the rain actually stopped, and I could even see a few peaks of sun behind the clouds. It was a few degrees warmer. Changeable mountain weather might finally be working in our favor, I thought!
As I ran the last few yards into the aid station, a friendly female volunteer came to greet me on the trail, telling me, "the race has been called." I grabbed her arm and told her, "To tell you the truth, I'm relieved." I wasn't sure what lay ahead, I told her. She explained that four of five runners had turned back down from Pajarito Mountain, facing horrendous conditions. Runners were being stopped in place in aid stations, or even asked to return to previous ones, all so that they could get to locations where they could be transported safely off the course. A male volunteer came up and gave me a welcome cup of hot chocolate. I told them I had a drop bag, they handed it to me, and they told me to get in the cab of the idling truck. In the driver's seat was one of those runners who'd turned back, a 20-something shivering uncontrollably in just a t-shirt, trying to get more heat to come out of the heater.
So, that's where my race ended, at mile 32.4 by my Garmin, and after 10:11 running time, so a little less than 20 minutes under the hard cutoff at that point. In a matter of minutes, they said we had a ride to the start/finish at Posse Shack, and we walked the quarter mile or so down the trail to the road, where two cars were waiting to take away some 5 or 6 runners. They quickly bundled us in blankets, and turned up the heat full blast in the cars. A nice young guy who'd run the half marathon earlier drove me and two other runners the 15 minutes or so back into town and to the Posse Shack. We exchanged war stories, and it was clear they had had it even rougher as they were up on Pajarito Mountain when the storm hit. I have to say, the volunteers were wonderful in every way--at the aid stations, at Pajarito in particular, the folks driving us to safety, everyone. Once we got out of the car at Posse Shack, the change in temperature really hit me, and that's when I started shivering like crazy. Till I could get into my car, crank up the heat, and change into three layers of dry clothes and dry socks and shoes.
As I ate some of the wonderful New Mexican fare they had on store, including a delicious burger from the grill with a fried green chile, I wondered about Steve, as runners slowly got transported back (and some 50K finishers came in). As I was back sitting in the car talking to my wife Esperanza, I saw him standing outside the car, just back. His first words as we hugged: "I almost died up on that mountain." He proceeded to tell me he had been up near the top of Pajarito in the driving snow, freezing, conditions very slick, difficulty seeing the trail flags, not knowing whether to keep going toward Ski Lodge or head back to Pajarito Canyon aid station. He had loaned an extra jacket from his pack to another younger runner who was running in just a tee. Steve's a tough pediatrician and experienced ultrarunner, so no shrinking violet! In the end, he and a local runner decided to shortcut off the course down an access dirt road descending the mountain that the guy knew from mountain biking. Not only was it shorter, but the footing was also better than on the course. That way they made it to Ski Lodge, could warm up inside, change into whatever they had in their drop bags, and wait till a car could transport them back to Ski Lodge. Clearly, his experience had been even more harrowing than mine. At the same time, he was raving about how wonderful the course was, how tough, saying he had no regrets making the trip out from the East Coast for the race.
Requiem for a Freak May Snowstorm
The weather had been weird ever since we landed in the area the day before. A storm with substantial rain and some hail blew in as we got settled in our hotel room in Santa Fe. This was the first substantial rain I remember witnessing in this my fourth or so trip to New Mexico and third stay in Santa Fe since about 2000. Then a few hours later, we encountered traffic snarls as it turned out the storm had knocked out power in a section closer to downtown, and we had trouble finding an open restaurant for our pre-race dinner. As we searched along a major thoroughfare, the heavens opened again, and we could barely see the address numbers as we looked for a restaurant we'd found on our smartphones.
We all knew there was a chance of isolated thundershowers, and highs were predicted in the mid-60s for Los Alamos. None of the three forecasts I'd checked had said anything about snow or temperatures cold enough to support snow. That said, common sense as well as the race manual indicated that temperatures of 10 to 15 degrees colder as well as higher winds were common at higher elevations, and we were urged to carry layers and shells in case of t-storms. So, pretty much all of us were prepared for inclement and cooler weather...just not for winterish weather! Why oh why did I leave those Marmot precip pants, which I have used at Bighorn overnight in June, back in the hotel room?!
One thing we all knew, and no one I've heard has questioned among the racers--the organizers did the right thing pulling the plug on the race. One guy did have to get taken by ambulance and was treated for hypothermia (apparently he recovered quickly). Only 50 of the 170 or so 50 milers got to finish, and they were far enough along to either be at lower elevations or to be past any point where they could feasibly be evacuated from the course. I heard zero complaints after the race or in any online comments since. The organization of the course was stellar, the course well marked, the volunteers very helpful, and the improvised crisis management impressive. Hats off!
On a personal note, what I take away from this experience--besides some high-quality Bighorn training despite the interrupted mileage--is a sense that you can't be too careful and should always expect the worst in the mountains. Whatever the season. I'm often seen as sort of over-preparing and packing dropbags that are too large and carrying the kitchen sink in my pack (a guy literally used that term describing my pack to his running companion at the Hyner 50K in PA in April--could have smacked the smirky young "dude with the 'tude'!). But if you spare anything when it comes to warmth and weather protection, you might regret it. Sometimes even I've scraped by sections in the mountains with only a light wind or rain jacket stowed away in case, less substantial than the new Marmot jacket I was carrying that really got me through this time. I'll remember Jemez next time when deciding what to carry, and eagerly bare the burden of those extra ounces. I remember Steve debating the day before and morning of the race whether to carry his shell or put it in a dropbag, and I know he realizes he made the right decision in carrying it. I still think, however, that experiences involving lightning in the mountains are the most harrowing, and fortunately that wasn't the case there, at least for me and I don't think for many others.
The other thing--seems trivial--is to just do whatever it takes to stay calm, and try to get into a sort of problem-solving mode, and break things into segments. What lies ahead, what will it take to get me there, how can I deal with any immediate discomforts or dangers? As long as you are moving in a direction you know is likely to take you to a safer location, keep moving. I can't say I was thinking everything through in a calm, collected way, but I believe in hindsight my instincts from previous experiences on the trail and mountaineering were basically good. Now if I'd somehow gotten off-trail in the middle of that storm, and realized I didn't have a detailed course map.....well, sometimes it's better not to go there!
Monday, March 10, 2014
Overall, it was a “take it as it comes” situation. Fewer runs and less mileage than I would like, but a chance for some great winter hiking. I was happy to still in get in some quality running stuff, with the 17 miler and solo speedwork both weeks. In equivalent time on feet terms, I’m certainly getting in what I would if I did only the goal mileage on trails in decently runnable conditions.
Garth debuting running snowshoes on snow way too deep and untrammeled
Poles helped with the second half, but these snowshoes no match for this snow (apologies for technical glitches on photo repeats)
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
On a side note, it is always somewhat humorous to me (and I mean this in a totally non-condescending way) the kinds of things that road runners not familiar with ultras and trails focus on and ask about in their understandably naïve curiosity of "what it is we crazies do out there." I'm sure many of you have gotten the questions: "But did you sleep?," "How did you eat?" As they set up the award before announcing who it was going to, the part I remember (and I was getting nervous as I realized they were talking about me and I'd have to stand up before a couple hundred folks) was how they dwelled on the exact number of hours, minutes, and seconds it took me at Bighorn , repeating it twice ("33 hours, .......).
I think it's the sheer time on your feet that most amazes outsiders looking in, as they think of it in, say, marathon time terms. For us, I think we think of it much more in terms of the incredible natural places where we run, the range of conditions we experience in a single race (rain/sunshine, night/day, temps from the 20s to close to 80 at Bighorn), and the amount of verticality and rough terrain we confront. Road runners don't seem to be able to compute race courses and experiences in that way. Anyway, the presenters were also nice enough to note that it was my best time at Bighorn in three consecutive finishes, so clearly they had done their homework. I was touched. Humbled. Nice to know someone and especially a group of peers and friends notices us, even as we're out there toiling mostly in anonymity and solitude (and wouldn't really have it any other way, that's just how we're wired!).
Overview of Weeks 5 and 6 of Bighorn (and Mt. Whitney) Training
The first week I pushed pretty hard, with a solo speed session, my second Whitney training hike (carrying about 42 pounds up and wearing crampons and heavy boots up and down Palisades slopes), and the Hike-a-Thong fat ass event in western Harriman, which was a blast. So, the second week was more about stepping back and recovering and reluctantly but wisely "listening to the body." Around about Tuesday of that week, I felt pretty whipped, and then on Friday I felt tired enough to shelve plans for maybe a two-hour snowshoe run and just decided on a complete day off. Wise decision! I didn't step over that dangerous line.
The highlights were the Hike-a-Thong run on Superbowl Sunday and the epic short and sweet winter "run" at Bear, both in good company. I felt really good for the last few hours at Thong, and it was cool to check out some trails in western Harriman I don't think I'd been on. I really felt like I would have liked more miles and time on my feet at Thong, and it was really nice to be running on technical trails after the smooth trails and road of the previous three weekends. We had some melting snow and slush to contend with but generally better footing than we've had most of this winter.
Also, balmy temps in the 40s, which were a welcome if brief respite from this otherwise unrelenting winter.
At Bear we had to work really hard for our footing going up and down the AT in a foot or snow of not too well-trodden powdery snow, and it was really cold. So much snow had fallen a few days before.
The solo hike (Whitney training hike #2) came two days before that at Palisades, and was a bit of a grind, maybe because I hadn't carried that much weight since last summer at Shasta. I pulled out the crampons from the pack after a dicey descent early on with more snow than I expected there based on the very little we had in the city at that time. But they kept coming off and I had to adjust or put them on many times. Very pretty and scenic. That was also my maiden voyage with my new La Sportiva mountaineering boots, which are keepers in fit and seem just that little bit lighter than the old ones. Nice to be able to practice on snow and with my actual equipment ahead of Whitney!
Here are the "vitals":
Week of Jan. 24-Feb. 2
Time Running: 9.2 hours
Time on Feet with Weighted Pack Hiking: 14.45 hours
Running Mileage: 39.65 (goal per Relentless schedule of 48)
Mileage with Hiking: 45.5
No. of Runs: 6
Speed: 6 X half mile in Central Park on East Drive from 72nd transverse to Engineer's Gate, with 1:15ish recovery (3:44 up/3:46 up/3:42 down/3:27 down /3:43 up/3:45 up)
Longest run: Hike-a-Thong (fat ass trail run) in western Harriman to/from Tuxedo Train Station, 14.65 miles in 5:00 (with Garth, Lesley, and Brice)
Hikes: 1 (Palisades/State Line in snow with about 42 pounds and using crampons most of the way and poles, maybe 800-900' of ascent?)
Strength: 1 upper/core body session, 1 short lower body session
Full rest days: 0
Weed of Feb. 3-9
Time Running: 6.55 hours
Mileage: 21.8 (goal per Relentless schedule of 52)
Longest Trail Run: 7.5 miles in about 3:30 in about a foot of snow wearing Snowcross at Bear Mountain (with Garth, Lesley, and Jeff), once to top, then down partway and back up partway, approx. 1,800-2,000' of total ascent)
Speed: 30 treadmill minutes at 7:30 pace
Yoga: one Vinyasa class
Strength: 1 upper body/core, 1 very short legs
Total Rest Days: 2
Final Thoughts: I'm still a little off synch in terms of the Relentless schedule as my very rough guide. Quite close in mileage the first week, way below the second week which is a buildup week on that plan. But I did so much more a couple weeks in January with the two 50k's that I'm not obsessing. And I'm getting in the training hikes, and spacing them out better than I did last year in my training for the climb that wasn't. So that counts for something on the training ledger.
I'm also happy to be getting in the quality in terms of some kind of weekly speed session every week, even as my speedwork coach has been taking a winter hiatus and I've had to do it solo. Between that and the January racing, my speed is a little better than it usually would be this time of year.
I wish I were getting in a second upper body and core session and regular weekly yoga instead of sporadic. But those are the two elements that tend to slide when it gets busy, and busy it is. Weekly leg sessions have also been abbreviated for the most part so I'd like to do better. But I also have to balance that in alternate weeks against the training hikes, which are strength sessions on steroids really! The aim for February has been to try to get in three of them, spaced about 10/11 days apart.
So, I guess, all in all, I'm in a pretty good place with my training, and not getting sick or injured, knock on wood!
Friday, January 31, 2014
Saturday, January 25, 2014
The New Jersey landscape I ran through for 50k #1 on Jan. 4th....
And the rather different NJ I ran through for 50K #2 on Jan. 19th
Both events were really enjoyable for me, but for different reasons . While I ground out a finish at Watchung when most folks went home early and took a finish at a shorter distance, I managed a faster pace under the better conditions at Batona, running four more miles (36 versus 32) in 23 fewer minutes (8:20 versus 8:43). In terms of the running in nature experience, each offered some zen feelings of their own. Being out there solo most of the time for the four and especially fifth loop at Watchung in a winter wonderland was magical at times--I felt dialed into a steady pace that had eluded me earlier and became determined to finish by nightfall. At Batona it was the eerie, misty ponds and the sun-splashed swamps with barren trees sticking up toward the early and middle stages. And later, as I wound through pine forests with less water around, there was the sensation of picking it up to...get...this...thing...finally...over!
It was four degrees at the start as I sat in the idling car waiting for the start. Just about as cold as I've ever felt it at the start of a race. I dressed as warm as I ever have for a race, too--balaclava, ski cap, and neck gaiter on top; mid-weight long sleeve base and middle layers under Goretex jacket on torso; thermal tights under ski pants and Goretex shoes with Microspikes and winter gaiters on feet; and mountaineering under-gloves on the hands. I had an insulated bladder and tube for my hydaation pack, and kept the tube right next to my skin all day as additional protection against freezing. Your regular winter gladiator, ready to do battle! Poor Rick and Jennifer and their volunteers had no place to keep warm except brief trips to their cars, I guess, as they registered folks and then tended to the start/finish area on a day when it barely (and briefly) broke 20 degrees.
Just before the start at Watchung
Loop one (1:35:47, 15:00 pace, counts stoppage at end of loop): Maybe a half mile into the race, a couple came running back toward the start as he shouted she was too cold. That's a new one! It took me literally a few miles to defrost, especially the legs, as the field was bunched together on the single track. Lesley, who had had to move her car last minute so started a minute or two late, caught up to me a few miles in and we would run together for loops one and two. Between the crowds and the wind-y trails and dealing with the roots and rocks and leaves lying under the snow, it was tough to get a rhythm. But it was real pretty, especially as we crossed and then ran a little along a frozen stream. The saving grace with the weather was that it was bright and sunny with very little wind, making it a little more bearable. Back at the staging area at the end of the loop, we both reloaded water and grabbed a few snacks from our cars and headed back out after a few minutes.
Lesley in excellent form crossing the gorgeous icy stream
This was our footing all day long
Loop two (1:48:09, 16:49 pace counting re-supply): Lesley started pulling away at various times and I struggled to keep up with her. My rhythm was all off and it felt like I was fighting with the footing, despite my Microspikes. We stopped for a few photos and there was the one aid station about 4-4.5 miles in, shortly before hitting a nice section along a lake that we rounded. I came close to telling her to go on ahead a few times, but I knew that would be a bad move as I'd settle into a real snail's pace then. (Thanks for not pulling away, Lesley!) On the first loop her hydration pack had frozen up, and she managed to thaw it only with warmer water from the mid-way aid station, and then on this loop she was carrying instead a hand-held...which also froze! But my hydration pack system was faring well against the cold, even as I was struggling despite the decidedly pedestrian pace.
As we pulled in to the staging area, she told me she needed to re-assess whether to go on as a knee was bothering her. I also knew she wasn't really up for the whole 50k in that cold in the first place. After going to her car, she let me know she was calling it a day (it turned out I later learned, R.D. Rick would tell her-- after she had stuffed down a bunch of food thinking she was done--that she needed to run a little over a mile through the parking area to get credit for a half finish--which she did!). Anyway, after I had restocked food and water and downed part of a PBJ or turkey sandwich (had one of each in the car-cum-aid-station, parked right next to start/finish) and had a few little thermos cups full of coffee I'd brought, she snapped a farewell shot of me on my I-Phone and I was off. I wasn't quite sure how far I was going, but the idea of coming that far and doing less than like 20 miles or so just didn't seem right to me. I'd had Phunt 50K circled for that day on my calendar since like October, and this was the plan B race we agreed on with our other training partner, Garth. But he subsequently had decided his ankle and motivation to tackle the cold weren't there in the end.
Lookin' like Klondike Bob out there--who needs gloves?!
Loop three (1:07:33, 16:48 pace counting re-supply): This loop was about getting used to running by myself--and I guess gauging whether I could wrap my body and mind around seeing it through to what I'd signed up for. While it wasn't a world-beating pace, I felt some rhythm creeping in, and starting hitting some 15 and 16-minute miles that raised my confidence from its low ebb. The coffee and the Advil I think I took on this loop also kicked in, the day was warming up, and I had picked up my mountaineering glacier glasses (like goggles) at the car. They helped me kind of deal with the snow glare and get into kind of an inner zone of focus and comfort. I remember Pete Priolo passing me (on his fourth loop) just after the aid station and confiding he wasn't sure about doing the full 50K. I briefly thought maybe I was overheating and might shed a middle layer earlier on this loop (as I had assumed from the start I'd do as the Goretex jacket is very warm), but those thoughts faded quickly as the sun went past its high point.
Rick told me as I came in that, while I was welcome to continue on for the full five loops, he and the organizers would not be there past 4PM (7 hour mark), so I'd be on my own and could e-mail him my time. Also, that meant I should stock up on what I could from their aid table and make sure I had enough in my car to get me through the last loop. This baby just became a self-supported expedition of sorts, and I'm feeling kind of dialed in to the idea of finishing it! Now I can't blame a cutoff or something for not finishing, either! But let's see what loop four brings first! So, back at the car, I downed the rest of the coffee, another piece of a sandwich, reloaded food (chews, gels, Lara or Hammer bars were my main foods for the day), and refilled my bladder--and then was off again.
Loop four (1:49:46, 16:59 pace counting re-supply): The numbers show my pace was in the 15:30-16:46 range for the first four miles (the good feeling fading a bit) and then picked up to sub-15 for a couple miles before the uphill-trending last fraction of a mile. Overall, I was within two minutes of my overall pace from the second and third loops. I had settled back into a decent pace and about as much as my body could handle with that footing. I was enjoying the turns and descents, walking smoothly up the hills, and running the flats with good energy. Somewhere during this loop I realized I was definitely going to finish this sucker! And I was kind of having fun out there by myself playing in the snow, feeling like I was in the flow and no longer fighting the conditions. It was such a pretty day, and now there were more hikers and walkers and some folks with dogs out, not to mention some folks on their last loop who had decided to run it in the opposite direction.
The volunteer briefly stopped me and said I wasn't going anywhere when I came in. But I explained Rick (who'd left) had told me I could finish, and co-RD Jennifer said if I'd spoken to Rick that was fine. It was a good thing I had brought an extra liter of water to stash in the car, as their water jugs were both frozen solid by that point! I put the remainder of my water in the bladder, restocked snacks, ate the rest of my second sandwich, and drank a little of the hot apple cider in the other thermos. I also made sure to grab my headlamp as well as my cell phone and an emergency heat sheet/bivvy sack--getting caught out there solo with an injury past dark, even with suburban streets and cars not far away, could be deadly on a day like that. As I headed back out, a couple guys who had finished 50k or some lesser distance wished me good luck...and then seeing me again a few minute later as they headed to their cars, were amazed to learn I was starting my fifth loop and shouted more encouragement! (i.e,. amazed I was that persistent? brave? stupid? didn't I know it was getting dark?! Who knows what they really thought!).
In pretty good spirits in the awesome late afternoon winter light
Loop five (1:40:00, 15:48 pace): The first four miles of the loop were clearly tougher for me all day, as again as I was slower in that hillier section. But it felt like I was moving well, and I remember passing some hikers going in the opposite direction, who shouted encouragement when they learned how far I was going and saw my race number and realized there was a race going on. Again, I picked it up the last few miles on the flatter sections and around the lake. I knew I was racing daylight (even as I stubbornly kept my shades on), and I also wanted to at least break 8:45. I actually ran and pushed the whole last close to half mile section (which I'd mostly walked every other loop). It's the longest uphill of the loop, and I was happy to finish (with no one around to witness!) in 8:43 and change. As it turned out, it was my second fastest loop of the day--not bad!
Walking back to my car, I saw a woman sitting in the idling parked car next to mine who rolled down the window and congratulated me. And then asked if I'd seen anyone else out there (no, I hadn't), and told me there were still two runners on the course. Wow, I wasn't even DFL! (Officially, one more would finish per the posted results, but perhaps the other never bothered to send in his/her time to Rick?) That news added to the satisfying feeling of having stuck it out on a tough day. A new mantra developed for 2014--finish what you started! Here's what I wrote on the Yahoo group: "Most were smarter than we 23 hearty (foolish?) 50K finishers, as 144 others were content to do 10k, 20k, a half, a 30K, or a marathon and get to somewhere warm!" Personally, I was thrilled with myself for having stuck it out and notched my first ultra finish of '14.
Two-fifty AM is way too early to get up for a drive to a run, and the bar stragglers were still hailing cabs on Columbus Ave. as I headed out of the city at around 3:30 for the 2 hour, 10 minute-ish drive. I'm glad the directions from R.D. Angie and the google map link she sent were on the mark, as there were a few backroads to navigate in the dark once you got off Route 206. I nearly drove by the unilluminated sign indicating the entrance to "Batsto Village Visitor Center." Unfortunately Chris J. from the Yahoo group would text as four of us drove to the start with Angie that he had gotten lost and didn't make it to Batsto in time for the pickup and ride to the start in Ong's Hat. Messages she suggested to tell him it would be ok to start late and he shouldn't turn around and go home were for naught.
Ong's Hat to Aid Station #1 (Route 70?, 4.7 miles official, 5.3 Garmin, 10:49 pace): Here we were in Lebanon State Forest, I see now looking at the map. The trails twisted and turned and we crossed wider sandy ATV roads a lot, but they were amazingly flat and runnable compared to what I'm used to. A few folks scooted by me, but I passed a couple too. Had to do a couple pee spots--hydration good! The legs felt good, though I wondered if I should be running 10s and 11s that early in a 50K. The first "aid station" was the back of a car pulled off at a clearing on an ATV sand/dirt road where the Batona crossed over it. Quickly grabbed a few snacks but decided not to refill the bladder.
Aid #1 to Aid #2 (mile 9.4 official, 10.2 Garmin, 12:14 section pace): As I check the map, I see this section crosses from Lebanon into a portion of the trail that lies between some county/state roads and is no longer state forest land. Particularly scenic with mist rising over it (still within Lebanon) was what a guy passing me called Pakim Pond, and there were some misty bogs and we had our first of many planks crossing swampy sections. I stopped a couple times to snap quick photos. He also mentioned that he trained a lot over the Batona and lived nearby, and that we had actually passed the hilliest section of the trail--though one hill of 200 feet (which qualifies as a regular mountain on this trail!) still awaited us.
I continued to feel pretty good but wondered how long I could keep up this pace. Was I cruising for my second fastest 50K ever (my 5:42 at Calico six years or so back seeming unlikely I'd surpass)? Or would I pay for this pace later? We crossed a two-lane road to the same car and volunteers, and I replenished water and grabbed a few pretzels and nuts and was off back onto the single track.
I was happy to get to this aid station, as this had been a long section.
Aid #3 to Aid #4 (official mile 21.5, 22.79 Garmin, 15:25 section pace): I took two Advil and half a Vivarin shortly after leaving this aid station, and it perked me up. But the momentum I seemed to pick up got lost quickly (not long after we passed a cool fire tower with a couple hikers saying hi from up above)--a couple spots of having to stop to figure out which way to turn at an intersection, or trying to figure out where one section of ATV road headed back into the woods (as we passed a camp). Every time it seemed to come as this same other guy and I would come upon each other yet again. Though we helped each other figure out the way forward, I felt like we also tended to sort of get in each other's way and got lost mostly when we were near each other and paying less attention to the trail. But, no doubt, the trail does get tricky, and skirts from ATV road to single to double track in quick succession and with little warning.
Still confused and thinking we were maybe off-trail as we saw no markings, this other guy and I eventually ran by some folks stopped by some cars whom we initially thought were race volunteers (no, a canine training unit with kids and rangers!). Then we came out to a two-lane road. Which way to turn? Were we even on trail? He said he'd done training runs there and he thought to the right was a place called Carranza and so it must be a left turn. Sure enough in that direction was a woman standing by a car and, as we approached, we saw the food and water jugs she'd placed on the grass. But she was surprised to see us approach from that side, as we were supposed to have approached from the dirt trail just beside the car (I think we missed a left near where we got distracted by the canine crowd). We had taken a small detour, so the bonus miles continued!
So, at this last AS before the finish, with some 12 miles to go (at least in theory), I finished off the next to last water jug by filling my 2 liter up to about the 2/3 mark. I asked and she told me there were six runners still behind us, so I didn't want to take any more, as the other remaining water jug was maybe half full. I can't quite remember what snacks I ate, and whether it was her eor the previous aid where I took a few swigs of Coke. Then it was off across the paved road and back into the woods onto single track.
This section had been pretty scenic. Besides the firetower there were several cool swamps set back among the trees beside the trail. Some I tried to capture on film, others it was too dark with momentary cloud cover or I was just too lazy to stop and pull out the phone/camera.
Aid #4 to Finish in Batsto Village (official mile 33.9, 35.99 Garmin, 14:56 section pace)
I had gotten into a pretty good groove in this section, but was till jockeying with the same guy. We crossed a lot of sandy ATV roads, and running on one of them I missed the quick turn back onto single track, having to backtrack maybe a few hundred yards or so to get back on trail. Shortly thereafter, I was catching up to the same guy, when a convoy of four vehicles came our way and I had to slow down and get to the left side. Apparently, that was when the other guy and then I missed the turn back into the forest on the right side. So we wondered aloud if we were off trail once we saw no more pink, continued for another few dozen yards, and then I doubled back, and saw no markings the other way either. Then I finally saw the turn we had both, separately, missed, on the opposite side of the road from where I expected it. I was pretty miffed at myself for not paying better attention, and was sort of associating my getting lost with some sort of bad karma of staying too close to this guy, though he was pleasant enough. You get a little moody and irrational sometimes out there at this point in an all-day event, sort of seeing conspiracies where they don't exist!
Back on trail, I picked it up and started feeling like maybe I was going to finally leave the guy behind. Somewhere along there I passed a confusing junction with a sign indicating Batsto Village was 6.2 miles away (I thought it should be five by then!) and also pointing kind of straight toward a dirt road, even though it really was supposed to point to a trail that angled off slightly to the right. I had to stop to check it out but fortunately could sense that Batona was the smaller, hiking trail. When I saw the other guy again later (we never did exchange names), he mentioned that he, too, had found the signage misleading.
Somewhere down the trail I crossed a little bridge and came to a wide intersection where I could either go start or veer a little right, both on double-wide trail. Trouble is, neither had any pink markings. So I walked back to the bridge, saw nothing, returned to the intersection, nothing, and finally realized that there was an odd-angled turn off into the woods just after the bridge that was almost impossible to see if you weren't looking for it. No warning, boom! So, knowing the guy was behind me (he had stopped to fix a shoe when I last passed him) and was likely to miss it, I picked up a stick, made a makeshift arrow to mark the turn, and even drew an arrow with my foot. An act of trail generosity that would be good for my karma, I thought!
From there, I got finish line fever, and picked it up, and pretty much stopped walking at all the last four miles or so. I could feel my breathing getting more labored, but figured I had enough in the tank to hold on, and made sure I ate and drank a lot. Thinking I was going to come to the spot at which there would be a sign indicating a right turn to Batsto Village following blue and white (otherwise you would overshoot and stay on pink toward the 50m finish, God forbid!), I came to a junction. It had a sign to the right to Batsto *Lake* (following blue and white) and another arrow pointing straight and continuing on pink saying "Batsto" (full stop, nothing about a "village"). Not wanting to take the wrong turn and run yet more bonus miles, I pulled out my cell and called Angie th RD, explained to her where I was and she said to keep going straight. Sure enough, the volunteers were there stationed about a half mile ahead as she said, where in fact the turn and sign were that would lead me into the finish. The finish, as anticlimactic as they get in an ultra world full of decidedly low-key finished, consisted of a couple guys at a picnic table by a car, along with a few runners who'd finished and were waiting for friends). Boy, those last miles seemed to take forever, and no amount of picking it up and trying to make one last push seemed to get me there.
Anyway, I grabbed a croissant and some other snack, and since it was chilly and a little windy I headed straight for the car. To change into warm clothes and get ready for the drive home.
All in all, notwithstanding the little navigation issues that come with the territory, this really was a fun outing on a cool and very different trail from the technical and mountainous ones I'm used to. I would go back, and am intrigued by the idea of trying to do the whole thing end to end (though I'd need some combo of (1) an early start, (2) company, and (3) more hours of daylight or a headlamp with some good battery life!).
Neither race is really like the big races I'm getting ready for (Jemez leading into Bighorn). But it's early enough in the year that I could afford to "play a little" and do some events that would be fun and build some endurance. I did too few events the second half of last year, and missed it. I didn't have strong time expectations, though I wish I could have kept up a better pace in the middle at Batona, and on the second loop in particular at Watchung. I'm still waiting for some ruboff to my trail pace from spending a little more time on the roads and faster-turnover running this past month or so! A work in progress, I guess! But hey, not a bad way to spend a couple weekend January days...