Thursday, July 13, 2017

7/09/17: Trail Verbier Traversee Race Report

During the Weidman family July Alps adventure, I was on the lookout for a difficult race that would be good training for UTMB but not use too much of my mental / physical energy before the big day.  I decided to head back to Trail Verbier for the shorter distance race.  The Traversee joins the course of the X-Alpine (which I ran in 2015) in La Fouly.  From there you have 38.5 miles and 13,500 feet of vertical in some of the most beautiful mountains in Switzerland.  I was excited to get back to these mountains and see a big chunk of the course that I did in the dark last time. 

I drove to Verbier and caught the shuttle over to La Fouly for the highly civilized 10am start.  It was a full on Euro race scene with almost 1,000 people.  The music was blaring at the start and helicopters were buzzing overhead.  I lined up towards the front, and we started up the 4,000 foot climb to Col Fenetre.

 Not a bad place to start running a race

Start line and some pretty awesome mountains / glaciers 

Big field with almost 900 people starting

Now we had a cold rolling through the family, and it hit me 2 days before the race.  I’d hoped I’d get a few good nights of sleep and be mostly over it, but I was seriously wrong.  I slept terribly both nights and felt awful on the race morning.  As I starting climbing, I had just no energy and felt totally wiped out.  Not a great way to start.

I stayed conservative and snapped some pictures as we ascended through these ridiculously beautiful mountains.  But as we got to higher altitude, the congestion in my head and ears become a big problem.  Energy levels plummeted, and I felt truly terrible.  This wasn’t the usual early race jitters, and I quickly started working through when I would drop from the race.

We crested Col Fenetre (awesome views abounded), and I continued feeling abysmal on the 1,000 foot decent.  Not a great sign.  After the short climb up to first aid station at Grand Saint Bernard, I planned to stop for a while and regroup.  Much to my chagrin that wasn’t really possible.  The aid station was packed given the size of the field, and there were no chairs or anywhere to regroup.  It was all I could do to get a refill of water / Coke, and then I somehow found myself on the climb back up to 9,000 feet and Col Saint Bernard.  Wait a minute guys, can’t I take a break? The plan was to get up this climb, run down 4,000 to Bourg St Pierre, and get the hell out of this race.

 Ascending into paradise

Looking back towards the start on the climb 

Some of the finest single track on earth 

This particular stretch of mountains is stunning.  I vividly remember this from 2015, and it did not disappoint this year! 

Look at all these fools climbing this mountain 

I remember in 2015 being disappointed by a rather unimpressive alpine lake on my left as we crested the Col.  This year I looked to my right and saw this staggering view.  Apparently I was so tired in 2015 I could not even manage to look right! 

Looking out over Italy after cresting Col Fenetre and crossing the border 

View on the climb up the Grand St Pierre 

Looking way better than I feel on the top of this climb 

I kept hoping people would pass me on the climb, but somehow I got locked in with a group and dragged up to the Col.  I figured the least I could do when we got there was stop for a minute and take a few pictures.  Despite feeling generally terrible, I was looking forward to the first part of this descent.  2 years ago I was still very slow on the super steep descents and was curious if I’d gotten any better.  Turn out I had!  I pass a few people, tucked in behind someone else, and didn’t get passed again for the rest of the steep section.

I got to the gradual part of the descent and started to do some soul searching.  Yes, I was sick.  Yes, I didn’t feel good. But I thought through a few things:

  •  I always feel worst in these races at high altitude passes and was exponentially worse at high altitude with the cold.  While there were two more high passes, they were both lower than the first two, so hopefully it wouldn’t be quite so bad.
  • I was still running a very solid pace even though my energy levels were in the gutter.  I could slow down a lot and still have a respectable finish, if not the time I was hoping for (12 hours).
  •  I love the Alps.  I love running in the Alps.  This was my shot while here to get in a long, epic run.

So stubbornness kicked in.  As Hamilton says, “I’m not throwing away my shot.”  I would have to swallow my pride, run slower than I wanted, and finish after dark.  But barring the worst, I’d somehow make it happen. 

I was fading as I finished the long descent into Bourg Saint Pierre and then the short, steep climb up to town.  We were at low altitude again and it was HOT.  I stopped in the town fountain to cool off and resolved to take my time in Bourg Saint Pierre to pull myself back together.

I arrived at BSP 4:10 into the race and set to work on Coke, Water, and Soup.  Oh, and Swiss chocolate.  By the way, I’ve never had chocolate as good I’ve had during this race.  Possibly because I am very tired and hungry, but I also think it is local chocolate that is outstanding.  I grabbed a mysterious cake that tasted like it had ginger in it and was awesome.  Then I tried to bum some Tylenol because my legs felt terrible, and I was worried I had a fever.  They sent me to the medical section who ultimately were unwilling to give my Tylenol without a better reason than “my legs hurt.”  Fine, you win Europeans.  Off I went.

I now had to make it 15 miles before the next bail point, as at Cabane Mille it was helivac only (no thank you).  So I started heading up the mountain and realized that I somehow actually felt good!  I passed a few people at the start of the climb.  Then I really started feeling good and started passing A LOT of people.  It was motivating, and I got some good words of encouragement in French.  It was full on beast mode.  In the 7.5 miles from Bourg St Pierre I passed 76 people, moving from 177th to 101st.  Once you do most of the climbing to Cabane Mille you then have the long stretch of PUDs (pointless up and downs, in the words of Keith Knipling).  You think you are there but then drop 500 feet only to climb 500 feet.  This goes on for miles.  I remembered 2 years ago when I was stumbling in the dark on this section and working hard not to fall off the mountain.  It certainly made this time feel easier, and I was glad to run a bunch of this section.

Views climbing towards Mille.  On the right you can see Catogne, which you climb early in the X-Alpine version.  I promise you it is much more fearsome than it looks here. 

The single track up to Mille circles around the right and then cuts up and across this picture towards the high point on the left.  You could see point climbing as we went up. 

Not so bad. It rained a bit around this time, but the cool was welcome and the views were still good. 

Looking back up the climb to Mille.  The town in the valley is Bourg St Pierre, where we climbed from. 

We started on the far right trail you can see in this picture and cut over and up the mountain. 

I got to Cabane Mille in 2 hours and 5 minutes and was fired up for the big descent to Lourtier.  After a mellow stretch there was a super steep descent through forest where I again got to prove my much improved descending skills and passed a bunch more people.  As I plowed down the 4,500 descent, I started doing the math.  With a really strong finish, I could probably squeak under 11 hours, which would be miraculous given my initial 12 hour goal. 

Top of Mille.  It's a bit far in the distance, but upper middle right is the top of Le Chaux and upper middle left is the finish in Verbier.  It was a bit of an imposing view of what you still had to accomplish (it was dark when I was here in 2015). 

But the margin was slim so I pushed hard on the descent.  My quads were getting pounded, but I made good time coming into Lourtier.  It was like an oven down there at 3,800 feet (by the way, we’re in a heat wave here with unusual, scorching temperatures).  I cooled off at another town fountain and regrouped at Lourtier before La Chaux.  The beast.  The thunderdome.  Over 4,000 feet of climbing in about 3.5 miles.  At the end of the race it is just a killer, but it is also part of what makes Trail Verbier the race it is.

The big effort of the long stretch from Bourg St Pierre to Lourtier caught up with me, and I was beat and feeling sick again.  It was very hot still, and the grade was punishing. But I kept a steady, determined pace up and continued to pass a lot of runners.  I finally popped out above treeline and realized the math for sub-11 was getting super tight.  I thought I could maybe do the 4 mile steep descent in 50 minutes but figured I’d need some room to spare to be safe.  I had also drained my bottles going up La Chaux and was dehydrated, so I figured I’d need to arrive at 8pm to finish sub-11.

View of the Grand Combin while dying on the climb up Le Chaux. 

This accurately captures how I felt on this big beast of a climb.  Stick a fork in me.

I pushed hard on the rolling section above treeline and the last part of the ascent to La Chaux.  I got there at 7:59, which was awesome.  I took time to get fueled up and started the descent at 8:04pm.  I walked for a minute stuffing more food in my face and then got down to business.  I kicked my legs back into gear to run fast on the flatter section.

Then we hit the steep descent through the trees.  My quads were fried, but I ran hard and kept making good time.  As each mile ticked off, sub 11 was looking good.  There is one last uphill and then it is all gravy from there with a last mellow descent.  We popped out into town for the last half mile.  Tons of people were out and it was a great scene.  Music was blaring, people were cheering, kids were high-fiving.  I sprinted in to finish in 10:53!

I was so pumped. To have felt so bad at the start, any finish would have been a victory.  But I somehow kicked it into gear, passed 100 people after Bourg St Pierre, and finished 76th out of 885 starters.  I think it just came down to my fitness being so good that even being way off my A-game I could still put up a solid run.  The run gave me lots of confidence going into UTMB, whereas dropping would have I’m sure left doubts in my mind even given the circumstances.  Both my uphill running and more importantly my downhill running are much improved.  My fitness and endurance are rock solid.

But that said, I still have a healthy and large amount of fear of UTMB.  39 miles in the Alps was still a tough run.  Over 2.5x the distance and another 20K of vertical will be a big beast.  So I’m on track but not underestimating it!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

6/10/17: OSS CIA 50 Race Report

Last Saturday / Sunday morning I ran the nighttime OSS CIA 50 for the second time.  Last year Connor was only four months old, so this was a perfect way to get in a tough race without taking away from much family time.  The race was harder than I expected with some serious heat and the overnight running.  I got beat up by the course but was happy to hang on for 10:33 and 3rd place. 

I really like the race and how it was run, and I was excited to come back this year.  My taper was pretty minimal with the focus on UTMB.  2 weeks out I ran 90 miles with 16K climbing, and the week before was 50 miles.  So I didn’t have many expectations going in and mostly just wanted to finish feeling strong (probably a good mentality for all ultras!).  I figured breaking my time from last year would be excellent, and sub 10 would be ideal.

This year was hot but not as bad as last year.  It was about 85 at the start with lows in the low 70s, though it stayed fairly humid overnight.  It was good catching up with folks at the start, including the race director, who I had the pleasure of running with in the Shenandoahs a few weeks before.  After putzing around for a bit, we were off into woods at 7pm!

When we hit the South Valley Trail 2 miles in, I found myself in second despite Jen’s sage advice to not be an idiot and go out too fast.  I was running way faster than last year but felt comfortable on the somewhat technical trail that meanders along the creek.  I again really enjoyed this section with the water running nearby and the fading sunlight.  I could tell my climbing legs weren’t 100%, probably due to the big vertical weeks and short taper, but I wasn’t too worried.  I then started fading and feeling a bit weak and realized I was sweating a lot and that it was still quite hot out.  I caught my mistake way earlier than last year and started to really up the hydration and get in some calories.

I was already feeling better when I hit Mawavi Road and got there WAY faster than last year in low 9s.  I cruised along the next section towards Oak Ridge feeling pretty good and trying to up the hydration.  I felt like the pace might be a bit hot, but I still felt in control and figured it wasn’t the worst to get in the miles during daylight (famous last words?).  I resolved to focus on cooling off in the Oak Ridge aid station and then taking it slow in the Farm to Forest loop too keep things in check.

Last year I had to turn on the headlamp 1-2 miles before Oak Ridge, but I made it well into the loop until turning it on this year.    I had resolved to go slower here but was feeling pretty great after some ice water over my head at the aid station and some food, so I cranked along through this section.  

Before I realized it I was back at Oak Ridge and repeated the cooling down and calorie intake.  I again resolved to slow down and keep things in check, but I just felt really good and kept rolling along.  I was still under 9:45 pace and have a blast running through the night.

As I approached the Burma Road turnaround, I was really curious how far ahead first would be.  But with all of the early starters on the course, I couldn’t actually tell where he was.  I did know that 3rd place was right behind me with 4th not far back, so I was trying to make good time while not getting caught up early in the race.  Nick, a super nice guy who ran the race last year, set up an aid station at the turnaround that hadn’t been there in prior years, which was awesome.  I refilled my bottles and stuffed ice in my hat.

After a bit on the road, I was on the North Valley single track trail.  The full moon was out at this point, and it was a beautiful night in the woods.  I was still really pleased with the time I was making and was having a great time.  I focused on the hydration and calories and before long was making the climb back up to the end of loop 1. 

I was pumped to get there in 4:15 (9:45 pace), which I think was about 45 minutes faster than last year.  I felt awesome at this point and was able to quickly get in and out thanks to the fantastic aid station volunteers.  Someone hooked me up with a grilled cheese, and Q filled up my bottles with Coke.  After having 3rd place on my tail for a marathon, I tried to move through quickly to get some solo time out on the trail and put some distance between us.

I felt like I’d been running really well for a while and was curious how far ahead 1st place was.  After running loop 1 so fast, I also started doing some mental math and realized I might have an outside shot at at breaking 9 hours if the stars aligned.  I tried to stay smooth and in control though, as there was still plenty that could go way wrong.

After a few miles on the South Valley trail, I decided it was time to pop in some Hamilton for some mental distraction.  Nothing like some hip hop and American Revolution while running in the middle of the night through the woods on the OSS CIA training grounds!   After the long stretch of single track, I made it to Mawavi road at mile 34 and for the first time in the race decided to ask about the gap to first.  They gave me that “maybe you’ve been running too long in the middle of the night, son” look and told me that I was in fact in the lead.  Apparently the guy in front had an ankle problem and had to drop, which is a bummer as he was a really nice guy and a strong runner.  Heal up Justin and hope to see you back on the trails soon!  Now I was running out in front, presumably with 2nd and 3rd close on my heels.

I hit Oak Ridge and felt like a machine at this point.  I was nailing the fueling and hydration. My pace was staying solid, and I felt VERY good for being 37 miles deep.  My average pace was just a bit over 10 minute miles now, and by my calculation I’d need to average somewhere around 10:20 to break 9 hours.  I could easily still have a big slowdown over the next 15 miles, so there was lots of work to do.

I cranked through Farms to Forest and knew I had about 6 miles of easier trail and fire road before the last big push.  I tried to just maintain pace here and save energy for a last big push.  I got to the Burma Road turnaround and knew this would be the moment of truth.  You have about a mile before the turnoff onto North Valley, so you can easily tell who is close to you at this point.  I’d put up a big gap as no one came through, meaning I had at least a 2 mile lead with 7 miles left. 

I kept expecting to slow down significantly, but I just felt so good and so strong.  As I hit the climb up Pyrite Mine Road, I knew that sub 9 was in the bag.  I hauled ass down North Orenda Road and then had just the 2 miles or so uphill to the finish from the creek.

I felt like money and cranked into the finish in 8:52.  The poor RD Alex had just gotten a chance to catch a quick nap, hoping the finisher would come in around 4:30.  My 3:52 arrival woke him up from his slumber.  Sorry Alex!  I was blown away by finishing an hour and forty minutes faster than last year.  Last year was hotter, but that improvement was beyond my wildest dreams.  I felt just so good all throughout.  I need to maintain a healthy sense of fear, but I do feel like I’m on a good track for UTMB and the hard work is paying off.  Each race this year has been better than the last.  I do still have 2.5 months, so I need to make sure I don’t peak too early or overtrain.

Recovery has been really good so far, and I plan to hop back into training soon.  I really like this race, and Alex and the volunteers do an incredible job.  I’m not so sure about returning to a race that went so well where I feel like I can only go downhill.  But I truly hope I can return next year to either run (slower) or volunteer.

Finally, congrats to Sheila who finished 3rd overall and smashed the women’s record by 41 minutes.  Crazy impressive!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

4/9/17: Bull Run Run 50 Race Report

This was my second time running Bull Run after running it for the first time 2 years ago.  I didn’t specifically train for it or taper very much with the main focus on UTMB this year.  But my mileage was solid, and I felt fit going into it.  It was also supposed to be a fantastic day with perfect weather.  The only concern was that I got food poisoning Thursday night, and my stomach wasn’t all the way back.  I guess I was starting with a clean slate?  Not exactly comforting going into a 50 miler, but what can you do!

We started off in the early dawn at 6:30am in very brisk weather with temps close to freezing.  I settled in around 20 places back and walked the line between not going too fast while trying to generate enough heat to warm up my skinny self.  I fell in with Eric and Keith, and we were rolling along nice and easy.  The sun started to come up, and the bluebells were fantastic this year and in full bloom.  Life was good!

We hit the turnaround before I knew it.  They cut off the last mile or so since the river had flooded with the recent rains, and we would do the white loop twice later to make up for the distance.  I was feeling really strong and was surprised to realize we were already back at Hemlock!  15 miles down right on pace (2h12min), and I felt great.

I blew through the aid station since I was wearing my pack, and I pulled away and was running solo for the next stretch.  The trail gets hillier here, but I was cruising along and keeping up a good pace.  Shortly after the marina aid station though I start to not feel so hot.  It felt like something was off, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.  This was basically a repeat of 2 years ago, but I decided to slow down sooner to pull myself together rather than wait until it got worse.

I mixed in more walking on the hills and tried to get under control, but I was getting worse and not better.  I tried more food but that didn’t work.  Tried a salt pill but that seemed only to make things worse.  I was getting passed a lot through this stretch and came into Fountainhead with around a marathon down not feeling good.  It then dawned on me that I had only had about 10 ounces of water and a few sips of Coke over 4 hours of running, and it was also starting to get a lot warmer.  Yup, that’s probably it.  I filled up one bottle with ginger ale and one with water and set to work on rehydrating. 

I slowed down even more on the white loop but really tried to get in fluids.  After the white loop I slowly started to feel better as I worked towards the Do Loop.  Then Eric came up behind me just as I had started turning the corner and feeling a bit better.  His rock solid pace and company was just what I needed!  I got my ass back in gear and locked back into a steady pace.  I’d drained my bottles and planned to stop at the Do Loop aid station to refuel and top up to get 100% of the way back.

Eric was giving me some great advice on UTMB (he finished a few years ago), and soon enough we were at the aid station.  I had some watermelon and soda, topped everything up, and I was ready to start hitting it again!  We had a really solid Do Loop, and before I knew it we were back at the aid station.

As we headed back to the White Loop, I started to feel good.  I mean REALLY GOOD.  My energy was 100% back, and my legs felt almost fresh since I’d been running slower for 10 miles.  It was game on, and I kicked into a new gear feeling awesome.

I checked my watch and saw we were 5h16min in with a bit over 16 miles to go. I started doing the math and realized I was back in good shape to break my 8h27min time from 2 years ago.  In the back of my mind, I was wondering if I could possibly get under 8 still, which was my A+ goal.  It seemed like a big reach but maybe doable?

I hauled back to the white trail and hit it at 5h42min.  My outgoing split on the white trail was 21 minutes, but I was moving really well and charging the hills through this section. At the end of the loop I started passing people and picking up the places I had lost earlier. I rolled into Fountainhead just under 6 hours.  2 hours was an aggressive closing split for the last 12 miles of the 50K held on this course in December.  It would be fiercely tough to do that at the end of a 50, but I resolved to try!
I took the time to fuel up well and took off a man on a mission.  Over the first 3-4 miles I was passing lots of people, and my splits were fantastic.  I was banking time for sub 8, and it was looking doable. 

Things started getting a bit rougher coming into the Marina aid, but I was at least holding time.
I did a last quick refuel and hustled through Marina.  From here it would be a 5.5 mile grind to the finish, and I think I had 55 minutes or so.  My stomach was not fantastic and energy levels were low, but I had enough in the tank to grind it out. I was fighting for each mile and working super hard on the hills through this section.

At 2-3 miles out, I knew I could get sub 8 as long as I avoided falling into the river to running straight into a tree.  Both of these were not a given in my current state though, so I tried to stay on task.  I got to the last mile marker on the trail and .5 miles later turned up the last big climb back to the finish.
I chugged up the hill and towards the top my hamstring started seizing up.  I tried my best to avoid collapsing and finishing on hands and knees, and I turned the corner to see the clock at 7:57.  I kicked it in (quite possibly a generous term here) and finish in 7:57 and 14th place.

Unfortunately I was faster than expected and parking was tougher than expected, so I missed seeing the family when I crossed the finish line. But they arrived soon after, and we had a great time hanging out.  Liam was a huge fan of cheering and would stop anything he was doing and cheer super loudly for every runner.  Liam and Connor also ate everything in sight and were really enjoying the finish line picnic atmosphere.

I was really excited to run sub 8 and 30 minutes faster than 2 years ago even without a perfect race or focusing specifically on this one.  It gave me a huge confidence boost in UTMB training.  Clearly the base building is going well, and now it is time to start the serious climbing!

I really love Bull Run and really appreciate the efforts of everyone involved with it.  I’m hoping to make this one an annual tradition and be back many times.