Tuesday, November 24, 2015

11/24/15: The Real Kick Ultramarathon Race Report

My success in ultramarathons seems to be inversely related with my preparation and sanity.  Run on my own in the Swiss Alps for 29 hours through murderous terrain?  No problem.  Sign up for a tough mountain 100 2 weeks before?  No problem.  Train for a race for 6 months and plan everything meticulously?  Probably a DNF.

The Real Kick Ultramarathon was perhaps the pinnacle in my lack of preparation and sanity.  Here is what that meant for this race:
  • 75+ miles with 14,000+ feet of climbing
  •  In the five days leading up to the race I would be in five countries
  • I was on a 1.5 week business trip with carry-on luggage, seriously limiting what gear I could bring
  • I had no knowledge of the terrain, venue, logistics, etc.
  • I’d be very tired and jet lagged
  • Right after the race I’d have to hop on a flight to Turkey and then on to Paris, on to London, and back to the US
Clearly a recipe for success, I arrived in the Frankfurt airport on Friday evening with low hopes and plenty of self-doubt. 

Pre-Race Comedy

The race briefing and dinner started at 6pm.  I flew in from Stockholm and drove about 1.5 hours towards the race start.  I had lots of trouble finding the place, finally found what I thought was the right spot, found the door locked, got out google maps and drove around for 30 minutes, finally came back to the same spot, and broke in through a side door around 7:30pm. 

I came to a room with a long banquet table filled with ultrarunners having a bit of beer and going through the pre-race briefing.  I walked in with my rolling suitcase wearing a suit and you could hear a pin drop.  “Hello, I’m the American.  Sorry I am late.  Please carry on with your race briefing in German.  Oh, I missed almost all of it?  No worries, I couldn’t understand it anyway.”

Since I missed dinner I headed out to McDonald’s, also hoping for some Wifi so I could download the course GPS onto my watch since there were no course markings (more on this later).  I brought along my new best friend who also arrived late and was from China working in Germany.  I finally managed to get my act together, get the GPS course, let Jen know I was ok, and get my gear (meager as it was) sorted out.

We all turned in and woke up early for breakfast before the start.  Then we gathered with our drop bags, which were important since there was minimal support on the course.  Most racers had drop bags that  looked as if they would suffice for an expedition to Everest or possibly a mission to the moon.  I literally had a plastic baggie with a couple of things stuffed in it.  They all saw this and instantly burst out laughing.  I was also told that my shorts were “not running shorts”, I should have brought trekking poles, and I would probably freeze on the course at night.  Truthfully though everyone was incredibly nice and very accommodating with speaking English.  I really enjoyed talking to folks from different countries and hearing about awesome races they had run like the Tor Des Geants.

We got in the shuttle bus and drove to the start (it was point to point).  Smart money was with the American not surviving the race, and if I would have made that bet too.

Start to Checkpoint 2

It was a marathon to checkpoint 2 with just a water / soda drop station inbetween.   

The race started near a nice lake and climbed in quickly in the hills.  I found the course much more scenic than I had expected and was having a most excellent time.  I was with a pack of runners and rolling along very easily.  Before too long we came upon a huge castle in the middle of nowhere. I love a country where a castle is just in the middle of the woods with virtually no one around.  It is like a scene out of Disney movie.

Soon enough I took my first of many wrong turns.  There were two trails that just barely diverged, and it was pretty much impossible to tell which one was right on the GPS until you had gone too far.  Then down the trail we came to a road that did not look right and had no clear indication of where to go.  As near as we could tell the track was telling us to go straight up an impossibly steep overgrown side of a hill that had very clearly never in the history of earth had a trail on it.  After much wasted time we bushwhacked and scrambled our way up, eventually finding what in fact seemed to be the right trail.  Good times.

A bit later we hit our second amazing castle that was even bigger than the first one.  I took a wrong turn again and racked up more bonus miles, but soon enough we were back on trail and rolling along some nice single track through the forest.  Shortly before the unmanned aid station there was a bottle with a sign in sheet to mark we had been through.  Trouble was that it was supposed to be “a bit off the main path.”

The GPS track again took us up a steep hillside.  We made our way up and eventually it pointed us towards the world’s thickest briar patch.  Sigh.  I eventually crawled on my knees and elbows through it until finally popping out on a real trail (and with visible disappointment seeing that an actual trail would have taken us to the same place with a detour of all of 100 feet).  Well I signed that damn sheet and bolted down to the first aid. 

I was a bit fired up about the bottle incident and moved through aid quickly and then started to run a bit faster on the next stretch.  We had a very nice long section here that meandered through the woods but on generally good trail, and I was having a very good time.

We hit another “bushwhacking turnoff”, but I navigated this one quite smoothly.  Next up was a series of switchbacks which caused my GPS to complete freak out.  I lost track of where I was and took another few long detours.  The bright side was that I ended up running into one person ahead of me and one person behind caught up.  The German guy I caught up with was thrilled to see us and exclaimed “I’m so lost and lonely!”  So our merry pack of three proceeded along.  This section varied between traversing the woods on barely existing trails and running along fields through farms, but with our powers combined we navigated decently well.

Finally we got to the village and ran through on our way to aid station # 2.  We hit the marathon mark in about 5:20, which I thought was quite good given the tricky navigating, tough terrain, and significant diversions.  I loaded up on a bunch of food at the aid station, grabbed some food to go, and got back on the trail.  We had about a 9 miles loop before heading back to the same aid station.

Aid station 2-3 (Miles 27-36)

I took off fast and got lost instantly.  The main trail went up a hill but apparently we were supposed to take some non-existent side route that stayed flat for a bit.  A few miles down the trail I caught my two buddies who had left after me at the last aid station but managed to avoid my navigational challenges.  We ran the rest of this loop together, which was much fun.   The navigating wasn’t easy, but we again had three of us which helped tremendously. 

I realized that most everyone else had full GPS devices that were much more helpful in navigating this terrain than my watch.  Good to know for the future, but not much I could do about it at the time!
The miles passed quickly, and soon enough we were back to the next aid station.  I fueled up again and quickly was ready to go.  We’d have a 12 mile loop before coming back to the same aid station.  I took off down the trail and figured my new friends would catch me once I inevitably got lost.

Aid station 3-4  (Miles 37-47.5)

Well I inevitably got lost.  Twice.  Very quickly.  The guys caught up to me and we started the steep climb on this section.

I was feeling way too good and quickly put a big gap on them.  Fortunately navigation got a bit easier for a while, and I kept rolling along.  Night was falling, but it was a beautiful and serene evening.   I came across a cow pasture and the cows playfully started running alongside me.  It was a cool scene and with all the cows I have run by, I have never seen any running alongside me.  Did you know cows are very fast?

Things were going smoothly and I hit the third and final castle.  It was dark at this point, but the ancient castle was even cooler in the dark night with the lights of the city down below.  Unfortunately at this point it started raining and my flashlight batteries died.   Seriously?  The batteries were fresh and are supposed to last for 20+ hours; they had been on for about 20 minutes.  This was a major problem as I do not like running at night without two light sources.  And with the rain and fog the flashlight is especially helpful and headlamp especially useless.  Suddenly this dark castle became very ominous and seemed more like a scene out of a Roger Moore Bond Movie with Jaws about to pop out.

But what can you do?  I navigated on and slowly adjusted to only having the headlamp.  It was tough on the technical & overgrown trails but not so bad on the clearer, wider trails.

I was also starting to get cold with the rain, wind, and low temperatures.  Fortunately the rain started to let up, and I arrived back at the aid station soaked but in pretty good spirits.  The next stretch was supposed to be 50km with no aid other than an unmarked water drop.  That is fearsome stuff at the end of an ultra and requires some serious self-sufficiency, especially when you are navigating on your own!  My aid stations stops had so far been extremely short, but I decided to take some time to make sure I was ready for the rest of this beast.

I got out of my wet shorts and put on tights and pulled on an extra top layer.  I ate tons of food here and stocked my bag with lots more to carry me through 30+ miles of running.  The race director couldn’t impress upon me enough that I had a very long way to go that would probably require 8+ hours on my own.  He kept asking whether I was sure I wanted to continue and gave me the “please don’t die on our trails look” that I know very well from my European racing.  Clearly I had yet to shed my “American likely to perish” status.  But no matter I was off into the night to finish this adventure.

Aid station 4 to finish (miles 47.5-79)

A little over 15 minutes out of the aid station I came across my two friends, meaning I was up by 30 minutes or a bit more.  They asked me if I was sure I knew what I was doing given my earlier navigation challenges.  They said farewell and I think assumed they would never see me again.

The next bit is a bit of a blur, but I was feeling good and moving very well.  When there was something resembling a trail, I was running quite fast and dropping my average pace for the race.  I was slowly getting better at navigating with my watch and at least minimized my off route adventures.  There were still plenty of tricky sections though as we hopped over cow fences, ducked onto off-route trails, bushwhacked through random sections of the woods, and took meandering routes through farm fields.  There were also a few good, stout climbs along this stretch.  But the climbing legs were good, so this wasn’t a problem at all.

We came down to a road and past a beautiful old inn along the side of a river.  After a nice, big climb the GPS track again dove straight into the unnavigable briar patch up a steep hillside.  After wasting a bunch of time here I figured it just couldn’t be the right way and continued on the main path.  Fortunately this was the correct route and merged back soon with the GPS track, but it was a scary moment of being off course.

We passed the last unmanned water / soda drop, and I pushed on quickly.  I was feeling WAY too good at this point given I was over 60 miles in.  I was continuing to speed up at this point and running very quickly whenever navigation allowed for it.  I had high hopes of beating the 8 hour expected finish split for the last 50km.

I kept powering through and soon enough was on the long circumnavigation around the lake.  This section was just brutally difficult to navigate.  There were tons of trails to take, and half the time we weren’t even on a trail and cut through the woods.  I was also starting to have serious concerns about my GPS watch battery.  I was extremely worried it would cut out leaving me in a very difficult position.  I had my phone and a good general sense of where I was so I felt I could still make my way to the finish, but I would not have been happy at not finishing the actual course.

I ran along and click off a few very fast miles.  The race was supposed to be 74.3 miles, but I figured for me it would be 76 given my detours.  I got to 75 and thought I was on the home stretch.  Then we hit a hilariously steep 40 degree plus hill that cut straight upwards.  But the bigger problem was that after the hill I couldn’t find the track.  I spent probably 20 minutes wandering around hopelessly and finally found the right course.  I was 76.5 miles in at this point.

The good news is that I came upon the race director who was hiking back to meet up with the runners (god bless his soul).  The bad news was that I had another 2.5 miles to go and another “tricky navigation section.”  But I was close to being done and soldiered on.  My headlamp batteries died about a mile later, so I wasted more time changing them out.  I wanted this thing done. 

After a bit more bushwhacking it was on to the finish.  I ran strong at the end and crossed the finish line in 16:53 for 79+ miles, 14K of climbing, and lots of navigational challenges.  Despite the dire warnings and getting lost multiple times, I ran the last section well under 7 hours.  It would also turn out that I won by over 2.5 hours.

I really couldn’t believe how well the race went.  I was negative splitting in the last 50K and felt like I could run forever.  It was just one of those days where “I had it.”  I never felt bad, my legs were great through the end, I was able to eat tons throughout the race, and I just had tons of energy.  Strange considering the circumstances leading up to the race. 

I got to bed and slept uncomfortably and fitfully for maybe a few hours.  It was fun seeing everyone the next morning and swapping our war stories.  Everyone really didn’t know what to make of me at this point but offered hearty congratulations and many kind words.  They were a very gracious and hospitable lot.

Thanks to all my German, Belgian, and Chinese friends.  The race director was also the man.  The highest compliment I can give is that his race had the feel of a VHTRC event with a European flair.   Lesson learned here is to not plan too much, take chances, and do things out of the ordinary.  I could have done a bit of sightseeing in some city over the weekend and played the tourist, but instead I got an amazing and unforgettable experience along with a nice sense of accomplishment.  Here’s to the next adventure!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

10/4/15: Grindstone 100 Here I Come!

Whew, the last couple days have been a rollercoaster.  The forest service cancelled the Grindstone 100 with the impending hurricane (which never hit us, by the way).  But miraculously the race director worked some serious magic and got the race rescheduled for next weekend.  Woohoo!

I was super tapered for the race and couldn't taper for another full week, so I had to quickly untaper myself (pretty sure that isn't actually a thing, but whatever).  Thursday night I did 5 miles at 6:40 pace, Friday morning I did 10 miles with 2,500 feet of climbing over 3.5 miles, and today I did a pretty quick 16.  I have successfully untapered and now am back to full taper.  My body is probably very confused, but hopefully it all works out.

I'm feeling good about the race.  My training volume this year was pretty similar to last year.  I averaged 67 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing per week.  I had some weeks over 90 miles and some solid long runs in the mountains.  I think the quality of my training was a bit higher this year with more speed work and a focus on quick downhill running.  Nonetheless it will be tough to overcome last year's advantage of the sabbatical leading into the race.  Sadly Dylan also won't be able to pace me, which would have been tons of fun.

Overall I'm feeling good about next week and working hard to get my head back in the right place. Hopefully it will be a fun day in the mountains, and I'm excited to get back on the course.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

9/8/2015: The Ring Race Report

Last Saturday I headed out to the Ring for a last big training effort before Grindstone.  Many years ago some overly ambitious person connected the 71 mile orange trail that circumnavigates the Massanuttens.  Then some recklessly foolish people in the VHTRC decided it would be a good idea to run around it in one go.  The trail is inconceivably rocky for 71 miles and offers some relentless punishment.  Naturally I decided this was a brilliant idea for a casual training run.

But the camaraderie and love that VHTRC pours into this epic folly is what makes it what it is.  The starting line is like a family reunion.  The aid stations are amazingly well stocked at this free race and several of them are manned at all hours of the night.  At each aid station you are greeted by friends who laugh at your sorrow but then put you back together and send you on your way.  It is a one of a kind experience, and I was glad to be there.

Here is how it went:

Start to Camp Roosevelt: 0-25 miles (Start to 5:48)

It all started well as it always does.  I ran with some friends for about 6 miles before deciding their pace was too hot and taking a step back.  I powered up the first climb and then began the dance with the rocks. Temperatures were only around 70 but it was insanely humid, and I was soaked through within a few miles.  I rolled into Milford Gap in 2:41 in 3rd place, right on schedule and feeling good.

Around four miles down the trail I started feeling bad.  Things were going downhill, and I needed an aid station to fix it.  Unfortunately I had a lot of miles left to cover, and it went from bad to worse.  I had to start walking even the easy parts, and soon I had to actually sit down for a few minutes to collect myself.  It was pitiful.  It was all I could do not to get passed by families out were their small children on a day hike.  I hadn't felt this bad in a long time.

I staggered into the aid station 5:44 into the race desperately wanting to drop.  Instead I laid down on a bench for a bit and then went to work on piecing myself back together.  After some Coke, ginger ale, ice, an ice pop, fruit, and almost 20 minutes I almost felt like a human being again.  I was ready to get back out there.

It turned out that virtually everyone had problems in this stretch.  The high humidity combined with 25 miles without aid (aside from the water hiked up to Milford, which don't get me wrong was much appreciated) threw a lot people out of wack.  I was glad I was able to pick up the pieces and return to the living.

Camp Roosevelt to Edinburgh Gap: 25 - 49 miles (6:07 to 12:12)

I took an ice pop and some solid food for the road and started down the trail.  There was a lot of false uphill and gentle grade climb that you could make quick work of on fresh legs but less so after 25+ tough miles.  Nonetheless I moved decently well and actually continued to feel a bit better.

I put in the headphones and started cranking out a good pace and passing people.  I was back!  I flew through the downhill right before the monster climb up to the mile 35 aid station.  This climb is feared and people say that if you get past this and through the next aid station, you'll finish the race (not true for me, but oh well ...).  You climb 900 feet in .6 miles for a hefty 28% grade.  But recently in Switzerland I had done about the same grade for over 4,000 feet of climbing at altitude, so I wasn't too worried.  I rocked this climb and got to catch up a bit with a few people who dusted me during my sad stretch coming into Camp Roos.  

I rolled into Crisman Hollow aid station at 8:16, which was a decent split.  This aid station was much snappier than last time, and I was refueled and out of there in a few minutes.  The next stretch was "only" 6.3 miles up and over Kearns, but people tend not to like this section.  It was rocky with lots of rollers up on the ridgeline, and I will say that it was slow going.  But I still felt decent, had the nutrition back under control, and was feeling like I could finish this thing.  I also had a nice chat with Jen and Liam from the trail which really boosted my spirits.  Thanks, family!

I hit Moreland Gap at 9:56, caught up with some friends there, and moved on quickly to Short Mountain.  This would be a long stretch at over 8 miles and was also rocky, technical, and hilly.  Somewhere along the way I realized that I just wasn't feeling into finishing this.  I was moving very slowly at this point and was tired of the rocks.  This was more of a "fun run" (I know, weird definition of fun) and not a focus race for me.  If finishing this was the goal, I am absolutely confident I could have and would have done it.  

However, Grindstone was the focus.  It was a long day in the mountains, my feet were beat up, I was chafed, the legs were tired, and I really didn't feel like doing the damage of another 22 tough miles and running until 1am in the morning.  While I would love to have finished and want to go back to do so again another day, I am good with this decision.  I was a wee bit beat up on Sunday but was able to jump right back into training on Monday and felt fine.  I've been able to get some good speed and climbing workouts done this week, and I think I definitely made the right call for Grindstone.

This left me wanting more, and I know that I will get all I can handle three weeks from tomorrow!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

8/16/15: Raising Money for Wounded Warriors

I'm excited to be raising money for Wounded Warriors at this year's Marine Corp Marathon.  Having run MCM five times now, I've had the honor of seeing many wounded warriors on the course and have been amazed and humbled by them.

The beauty of the out and back sections of MCM is that it allows you to see much of the field regardless of your pace.  Whether seeing the wheelchair racers flying ahead of me or an amputee making my job out there seem so easy by comparison, it is hard to not get emotional when faced with such courage and knowing what others have been through on that day but more importantly over the course of their service to our country.

I'm proud to run for Wounded Warriors this year and gratefully appreciate any contributions anyone can make.  Here is my charity site and thanks!

8/16/15: Trail Verbier Pictures

My darling wife was kind enough to buy me the Trail Verbier race photos for my birthday.  I think letting me do the race was way more than enough, but she is ever the overachiever. 

I'm not usually one much for race photos, but the first two pictures they got were epic.  They had a photographer well placed at the top of Le Catogne at 8,500 feet.  The morning light was perfect, and the 360 degree views were a highlight from the course.  We'd just climbed 6,500 feet straight to this point, so I'd say we earned the view.  This is also where they had helicopters buzzing overhead, making this stretch of the course even cooler.

The next set of pictures didn't quite do this part of the courses justice.  This was after the descent off Catogne and 2/3 of the way up the climb to Orny Hut.  I was wrecked at this point so was not at my most photogenic, and it was difficult to capture the scale of the scenery in these shots.  Still very cool, though.

And here I am chugging ever so slowly to the finish line.  

Finally done and super happy.

Thanks so much for the great present, Jen!  The first picture is now on display in my office in case anyone at work still doubts my sanity.

8/15/15: Grindstone 100 Training!

I took a bit of time to recover after Trail Verbier (well not counting the run I did with 5,000 feet of vertical later that week because I couldn't help myself).  Fortunately I recovered well and jumped back into training quickly.  After going so deep into the well at Trail Verbier I couldn't contemplate the thought of Grindstone when I finished the race, but after a whole 24 hours I was back in the game and fired up!  Oh how quickly the mind forgets ...

I've been focused on ramping up the mileage while getting in good quality as well.  I've been trying to mix in some speedwork (not so speedy these days) and some solid climbing.

Here is what last week looked like:
  • Saturday:  16 miles.  1,600 feet of climbing.  Mostly trail.
  • Sunday:  20 miles.  2,300 feet of climbing.  Mostly trail.
  • Monday: 8 miles easy
  • Tuesday: 10.5 miles.  2.25 on the treadmill with 1,500 climbing.
  • Wednesday:  11 miles.
  • Thursday:  9.5 miles.
  • Friday: 9 miles. 2 on the treadmill at 10%, 6mph.
  • Total: 84 miles.  9,000 climbing.
Lots of those miles were also with Liam in the jogging stroller.   This gives Jen a great break but also gives me an extra challenge!  Now that he weighs close to 30 pounds, the long uphills are starting to get serious.

Next weekend I head out to the Grindstone course to volunteer on the trail on Friday and run 30 miles of the course on Saturday.  It should be a ton of fun and really good training.  Then I plan to run The Ring on Labor Day Weekend (tough 71 mile course circumnavigating the Massanuttens).  These two runs will be the backbone of training and the rest will fill in around them.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to go run 3,000 feet of vertical on a treadmill.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

7/15/15: Trail Verbier Pictures

Early dawn after popping out of the forest.  We will be climbing to the top of the peak on the right (Le Catogne)

The sun starting to rise over the mountains around Verbier.  You can see the moon in the top.

It was a beautiful dawn in the mountains

Some nice forest trail on the way up Catogne

After about 4,000 feet of climbing we popped out above the treeline

There was a liquid only aid station at the farmhouse here

Early morning in the Swiss Alps!

Up, up, up!  This part was just a bit steep.

We traversed to the right and the climbed up to the spine of the mountain and the followed it right to left to the peak.

I just couldn't stop staring at all the amazing mountains around me

Last steep ascent to the summit at 8,600 feet

Next up we'll drop to the valley floor and climb the beast behind me.  

This is the descent off Catogne.  Hard to get perspective here but you just dropped down this scree field at 40+% grade

Looking up the descent

The morning light was perfect here

Part way down now but a long way to go until Champex.  That is the town in the bottom and our next aid station.

After Champex we descended super steep forest trail towards the Orny Hut and glacier.  The waterfalls were incredible though.

More waterfalls

Super steep scree ascent after we came out of the woods

We traversed along this rocky ridge before the last part of the ascent

Looking back at Le Catogne.  Check out the highest point towards the left of the peak.  Just to the right of the high point you see the scree path running in a line straight down the mountain.  That was our descent ...

Looking out as we were climbing up.  I felt terrible, but at least the views were good!

Brutal ascent to Orny as we approached 9,000 feet

The bottom of the Orny glacier

The Orny glacier and up at the top right is the Orny Hut we are climbing to

On the way back down from Orny

The descent was steep and rocky but also really beautiful

After this stretch we steeply dropped off towards the valley

Another glacier starting to come into view while we descended

There was a huge waterfall following us down

Glaciers are awesome!

Bottomed out at Saleina at 4,000 feet, and I was really enjoying the comparatively mellow climb through the valley up to La Fouly

Arriving in La Fouly, the first major aid station at 30 miles in.  Took me over 12 hours to get here!

Mountains and glaciers towering over La Fouly

Stunning landscape as I started up towards Grand Col Fenetre from La Fouly

The first part of this climb was very nice 

More great views as we ascended towards Fenetre

Some beautiful Swiss alpine trail

It was about 6pm, and the cows were being brought in for the night.  We had to wait about five minutes while they passed.  It was a good time for a snack.

High alpine lakes over 8,000 feet

We are ascending up to the saddle in the middle just to the left of center

Looking back up at Col Fenetre.  The snow field just above and left of middle is where we came over.

I was totally exhausted coming into Bourg St Pierre, though I must say the runner in front of me looked less happy than I did.

After some rest at the aid station, I climbed up to Col St Bernard.  The setting sun created outstanding lighting on the mountains.

Dawn approaches!

On the way up Le Chaux now.  Somewhere up in the top right was the Col de Mille, the mountain pass I struggled through at 3am.  Then we descended 5,000+ feet down to Lourtier and climbed back up here

The snowcapped mountains way in the distance are what we passed on the way up to Grand Col Fenetre.

You can see Le Catogne on the left and in the middle right is the very cool peak we saw while climbing Le Catogne.  This also reminded me that this was my second sunrise of the race.  Yikes.  

Coming into Verbier.  This was a sight to lift your spirits.

And just like that crossed the finish line!