Monday, September 5, 2016

Tall Trees and Tough Trails - The Cascade Crest 100

It was about 1:00 PM on Sunday and I'd been running and hiking since 9:00 AM.....on Saturday.  I struggled up the final steep climb of the race going into mile 90, stopping repeatedly to catch my breath.  "Get your heart out of your ears and back into your chest," said my buddy Surf, who had been pacing me since mile 55.  We finally hit the top, with 6 miles of the Silver Creek Trail ahead of us to the final aid station, and I remembered the runners guide describing this section of trail as "steep downhill, moderate downhill, steep downhill."  If you've ever had IT band issues, as I'd been dealing with for the past 30 miles, then you know that's not what you want to hear.  My slow pace up and down the six short but steep climbs of the Cardiac Needles from miles 81-86 had put my pre-race time goal out of reach, but Surf maintained some ability to do math and determined that we still had a chance to beat my previous 100 mile finish time.  A chance for a PR, but I'd have to pick it up a bit through this section.  So I pushed down the hill, "running" when the trail was smooth, and painfully picking my way down the steeper sections.  When my watch finally beeped to indicate the mile split, I looked down and laughed out loud - I had been trying hard, and it wasn't even the slow pace I needed to average for the final 10 miles.

I slowed back down and tried to even out my effort, as now it was about just getting to the finish as efficiently as possible.  But that short push had set me back.  I'd been taking in calories, but only 100-200 per hour, not the 250 or more I knew I needed.  And I couldn't stop drinking.  I finished my 1.5 liter bladder in an hour, and was stopping to pee every twenty minutes.  I took another salt tab, trying to get my system back on track.  I had a bottle left and tried to slow down on the drinking, but I was so thirsty.  It was becoming a warm afternoon, but I realized my shirt was totally dry as I was no longer sweating.  Are my fingers puffy?  I wasn't sure, but it seemed like they might be.  As I kept moving slowly down the hill, I could just feel myself getting hotter and hotter.  I finally told Surf that something was wrong, but that I just needed to take some time at the next aid station at mile 96 to cool myself off.  Ice in my pack, ice in my arm sleeves, ice on my neck, ice water.  I poured the last of my water over my head, and as we started to hear the aid station off in the distance, Surf ran ahead to get me some ice water.  A few minutes later he came running back up the trail.  "They're out of ice," he calmly said.  My heart started to sink and my head started to spin just a bit.  I didn't come this far to only come this far.....

Pre Race

Karl Meltzer has famously said "100 miles is not that far." Considering the 'ole Speedgoat is out right now trying to set the record on the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail, that may be true for him. But for most it's a long, long way. It's a distance I've only covered once before, at Pine to Palm in 2014. But after not running a 100 last year I knew I wanted to try another in 2016, so after being shut out of Western States (again) and Hardrock I threw my name in for the Cascade Crest lottery early in the year.  As a qualifier for both of the above races the popularity of this old school ultra seems to be growing, so it wasn't a big surprise in February that my lottery streak continued - now 0-7 in various ultra lotteries! But I was in the 20s on the wait list, so the odds looked pretty good that I'd end up getting in. And after submitting my qualifier and trail work information in June, on August 1st I was officially entered in the race.

Handies Peak
The view from 14,058' Handies Peak on the Hardrock 100 Course
I had recovered pretty well from Canyons 100K back in May, with no lingering achilles or IT band issues. After a few weeks off I ramped back up through June, and had the opportunity to once again pace Surf at Western States. I then took advantage of my daughter being on vacation with her mother for a couple of weeks to head out on a "dirtbag runcation" road trip in July.  Such an incredible adventure with runs and hikes in Flagstaff, around Silverton and on the Hardrock 100 course (highlighted by going up Handie's Peak at 14,058'), and in Moab on the way back home, all while sleeping in the car and camping for free every night.  What an opportunity to experience real mountains and trails unlike any I've ever been on, not to mention spectating an amazing race at Hardrock.  Combined with good consistency and solid efforts earlier and later in the month, and July was my biggest month ever in terms of miles, hours, and total elevation gain.  After a two week taper I was feeling pretty good and confident in my training heading into the start.

Cascade Crest Elevation Profile
These things never quite capture what it's going to be like!

Start to Tacoma Pass (Miles 0-25)

The start was the typical nervous energy as 164 runners and their family and friends milled about.  The unusually civilized 9:00 AM start allowed for a more relaxed morning routine than normal, and after the pre-race meeting and yet another porta-potty stop we lined up and were off.  We ran down a road for a bit, and as always I started comfortably at the back of the pack.  As we transitioned onto the trail I chatted with fellow Bay Area runner Chihping Fu who I'd seen at other races but had never met before.  It didn't take long before we began the initial 3,000'+ climb up to Goat Peak which would take us to almost the 10 mile mark and the Cole Butte Aid Station.  The miles ticked off slowly but easily, mostly power hiking before we finally hit some downhill switchbacks that allowed me to open up the stride and run for a bit.  Of course that only lasted for a couple of miles before it was back up, up, up to the Blowout Mountain Aid Station, still feeling good and enjoying the cool weather.
Cascade Crest Start
8:59 AM, let's do this!

Two things that had me anxious going into the race, besides of course the sheer enormity of the challenge of 100 miles, were bees and the Snoqualmie Tunnel.  Runners from previous years had reported running through swarms and suffering 5, 10, 15 bee stings, and most occurred on the section that was coming up.  I'm not allergic but I'm no fan, so I ran slightly behind runners in front of me, thinking I'd get a warning yell if we hit a heavy bee section and I could try and sprint through.  At one point I was cruising along some rolling single track, the last runner in a group of six when all of a sudden "zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz" and BANG BANG, I took a sting on each leg.  One was on the outside of the right leg near the knee, and the other was right above the ankle bone on the left leg.  I let out a yell and took off, passing a couple of the runners in front of me - none of whom had gotten stung!  I guess they had gotten them riled up just enough to take out their aggression on me.

We soon hit the iconic Pacific Crest Trail, where we would spend the next 50K or so.  I kept an eye (and an ear) out for more bees while we cruised along, moving well (10:30-12:30 miles) on the downhill section after taking the suggested quick detour to the peak of Blowout Mountain.  It was foggy and cloudy up there so we missed out on some views, and the runners just in front of me had seen a military jet fly by - below where we were up on the mountain!  But the fog kept it nice and cool, perfect running weather.

Cascade Crest Single Track
Feeling good on the PCT (photo Glenn Tachiyama)
The first crew aid station was Tacoma Pass, just over 25 miles in.  I had created a chart with 28, 30, and 34 hour splits to give me an idea of how I was moving, and as I hit the aid station I was 6:30 into the race, about 10 minutes behind the 30 hour pace splits - pretty much where I expected I'd be.  It was great to see my parents and Surf, I was feeling great, energy was good, and other than the bee stings nothing really hurt.  As I would do each time I had access to my crew or a drop bag I cleaned and re-lubed my feet, changed socks, and filled the bladder in my pack.  Then it was back down the trail.

Tacoma Pass to Hyak (Miles 25-55)

Cascade Crest Tacoma Pass Aid Station
Trying to keep the feet happy
This next section of PCT was still mostly nice and smooth, starting with an almost 4 mile climb out of Tacoma.  At one point we could hear cheering, but I knew that we were still at least two miles out from the next aid station.  The trail dropped into a clearing, and there we found a real trail party.  A PCT trail crew had set up "The Gauntlet", with beers lined up on both sides of the trail and a table full of beers and whiskey at the end.  I smiled and ran through to some cheers, and when I grabbed a Ranier off the table and threw a little down, the cheers got louder.  Thanks for being out there all, fun distraction!  The trail continued on, mostly rolling with some moderate climbs, and it took a little less than three hours to get to the next aid at Snowshoe Butte.  Just over eight hours for a 50K, pretty slow but faster than my first half at Canyons 100K by an hour and right about where I hoped to be.  It was another hour or so to my next drop bag at Stampede Pass where I took care of the feet again, and set back off on the PCT about 6:15 PM with the goal of getting to the next aid station without pulling out the headlamp.

Cascade Crest Views
Incredible views
We hit some pretty heavily wooded sections through here as the sun set, and continued to see PCT thru hikers who would cheer us on.  Many of them were starting to set up camp for the night, getting fires going and making dinner, which was starting to look pretty good after eleven hours on the trail.  I spent much of this section on my own, on occasion catching up to a runner or group running together and passing by when I had the chance.  I caught up to three or four runners moving together, with a thru hiker wearing a full pack keeping up with them!  I followed behind for a few minutes before finally passing by, and came into Meadow Mountain aid station at mile 43 just before dark.  As I was getting ready to leave, that group of 3-4 runners and the thru hiker came in to the aid station - we couldn't drop the guy!

I left with the headlamp turned on and headed out into the night .  The trail turned more technical here, and I started to get a little frustrated with how slowly I was moving as everything was seemingly steep or rooty or rocky.  I think I got a little behind on calories as well, as I was starting to get tired of the Tailwind in my hydration pack and anything sweet in general.  I passed by a campsite with thru hikers near Mirror Lake, laughing and enjoying a fire, and I started to wonder why the hell I was doing this.  Another series of climbs, then I dropped into Olallie Meadow aid station a little after 10:00 PM. Scott McCoubrey handed me a plate of pierogis at the aid station, and I'll be damned if they weren't the most delicious things I'd ever eaten.  After a second helping, I headed off and down a super steep and rough dirt road, spirits lifted again, looking for the ribbons marking where we would plunge down into the trees.

Snoqualmie Tunnel
Snoqualmie Tunnel.  It's creepier in the dark (photo Doug MacDonald)
Yes, that's correct, at about mile 50 the course leaves the road and drops straight down a hill side.  Ropes guide you from tree to tree, with a grade my Strava file showed to range from -20% to -45%!  Pretty much straight down, and then it spits you out onto a fire road heading toward the tunnel.  The Snoqualmie Tunnel is a former railroad tunnel that runs 2.3 miles under 1,400' of mountain.  I had been a little concerned about feeling claustrophobic in here, so I turned off my headlamp, turned on my flashlight, and pointed it at the ground in front of my feet.  Just focus on that circle of light and run.  And I ran, and ran.  I saw a light up ahead and passed one runner, then another.  I started to realize that I was just too tired to worry about claustrophobia, and actually looked around a bit - enough to see the mice scampering about on the edges of the tunnel (what the hell do they eat in here?).  I passed a third runner and a few minutes later emerged on the other side, letting out a big "whoop" to alert the runners behind me that the end was near.  Then it was into the Hyak aid station, where my parents and Surf were waiting.

Hyak to Mineral Creek (Miles 55-75)

Hyak Aid Station
Surf ready for 55 miles of pacing duties
At Pine to Palm in 2014, I was at my lowest around the half way point.  I was struggling bad, and barely made the cutoff at mile 52.  But here I was at mile 55 feeling good, and looking forward to having some company on the trail as Surf was going to pace me from here.  I was about thirty minutes behind my projected 30-hour splits, but still moving well.  I put on some warmer clothes, said goodbye to my parents, and off we went.  After running on the frontage road for a bit we finally hit dirt again and began to climb, up 2,000' over four miles on a gravel road.  It was a bit of a grind, but it was good to have company out there.  We came into the Keechelus Ridge aid station, and I started to see the toll the miles were taking on some runners.  Three or four runners huddled around a propane heater, and one was asleep, wrapped up in a poncho.  An aid station volunteer woke him up, letting him know he'd been there for an hour and he might want to get moving.  I thought he might be done, but as we were running the four miles back down the hill he passed us, moving well.  Sometimes you just need a nap!

My body had been holding up pretty well so far, although my right IT band band had been tightening up a bit.  This long downhill finally put it over the edge, and I started to feel that all too familiar pain in the outside of the knee.  I was pretty happy that it had held up until the 100K mark, but I knew this was going to be with me for the final 40 miles or so, and the downhills were going to hurt.  Surf and I came into the Kachess Lake aid station at mile 69, where I put down some grilled cheese sandwiches before we were sent on our way and wished good luck.  Good luck??

The Lake Kachess Trail is better known as "The Evil Forest" or "The Trail From Hell".  I had seen bits and pieces of it thanks to the Ginger Runner's short film last summer, but that just doesn't do this section of "trail" justice.  Beginning with a log crossing six feet over the creek, it is basically four miles of scrambling.  Up steep but short climbs.  Under logs.  Over logs that have foot and hand holds chainsawed into them.  Down small drops.  Along the lake where the trail is completely washed out.  It was relentless!  The elevation profile looks totally benign, almost flat, but I sure don't remember any flat.  While we struggled through we tried to keep our sense of humor, laughing at how ridiculous this was.  As we neared the end the sun started to rise, bolstering the spirits a bit.  We finally crossed the creek that marked the end of this section and came into Mineral Creek aid station around 7:00 AM, beaten down more than just a little bit.

Lake Kachess
Sunrise over Lake Kachess, near the end of "The Trail From Hell"

Mineral Creek to the Finish (Miles 75-100)

I had a drop bag here, and again cleaned and lubed my feet and put on new socks.  A few other runners sat around, trying to regroup after that tough night time section.  I knew from the elevation profile that the final quarter of the race was basically 15 miles of climbing then descending back down to Easton over the final 10 miles.  Surf and I headed off on a long fire road section, chatting with other runners as we passed them or they caught up to us.  We finally came into No Name Ridge around 9:00 AM to find a beer garden set up, complete with volunteers in lederhosen.  I promised to come back for a beer after the race (sorry, Deby, that I didn't make it back!), and we headed off to tackle the Cardiac Needles.

The course guide describes this section as "the prettiest and toughest on the course".  Yup, the toughest section begins about 82 miles in!  We spent the next few hours climbing up some of the steepest, most relentless climbs I've ever experienced.  More than once, Surf or I looked up and exclaimed "you have to be kidding me!" as false summit after false summit kept us moving into the sky.  There were sections through here that reminded me of what I had seen of the Hardrock course, narrow, rocky trail carved into the mountain side with steep drop offs.  I definitely understood now why this race was a qualifier!  And like Hardrock, it was indeed beautiful, although I was too exhausted to take out my camera to capture any of it.  We finally came up to the Thorp Mountain aid station at mile 86, and were told to climb the half mile up to the summit and come back before getting any aid.  This was the only out and back section of this looped course, so it was cool to pass runners as we went up and back down, encouraging each other.  And the views were indeed worth it.  We spent a few minutes up there soaking it in, reminded yet again of why we do this.

Thorp Mountain
Climbing up Thorp Mountain (photo credit Glenn Tachiyama)

The short and steep climbs continued after Thorp, just relentless, before hitting the highest point of the course just before the French Cabin aid station at mile 89. I had noticed my thirst increasing, I figured as a result of the effort I was putting in to get up the climbs.  I struggled to handle the downhills thanks to the pain in my knee, and while I knew it was "only" 10 miles to go, that still meant over three hours of being out here.  And I was ready to be done.  So we pushed, to see if I could pick it up and make that PR....

Cascade Crest Silver Creek
Trying to cool off in Silver Creek
After Surf told me there was no ice left at Silver Creek aid station, I struggled in.  His wife and kids were there, which was a nice surprise, and my parents were waiting as well.  I sat in a chair and told them I wasn't doing well, totally overheated.  Before UTMB earlier that weekend, Zach Miller had posted on Instagram "I didn't come this far to only come this far.  #perseverence".  Those words bounced around my head, as I struggled to figure out how I was going to get myself back together.  I could hear people talking, and I was responding, but I wasn't right.  Then I heard Surf say, "get in the creek", and my crew helped me over and into the cold, cold waters of Silver Creek.  I sat there for several minutes, trying to get my core temperature under control.  I was helped back into the chair, and the amazing volunteers kept helping - bringing over Coke, putting wet rags on my neck and head.  I was starting to feel better, feel a bit more "normal", and a medical volunteer came over to talk to me.  He said "you sound coherent, so I think you're ok to continue", and that was such a relief - my biggest fear was that I would be held there for too long, or worse yet just not allowed to move on.

I finally got up and got ready to go, and my dad put his hand on my shoulder and said "finish strong."  After what I had just gone through I kind of chuckled and said something like, "oh, I'll finish," but he said again, "finish strong."  Surf and I headed off down the trail, but my equilibrium was so off that I was shivering so bad my teeth were audibly chattering!  It took a good ten minutes or so for my body to figure out what was going on and reach some sort of stasis, and then I was running again!  Shuffling, very slowly, but shuffling along.  Then bam!, I felt a sharp pain in my little left toe.  Oh come on!  I knew right away it was a blister, and I just couldn't put any weight on it.  We found a log to sit on, I took off my shoe and sock, removed a pin from my race bib and started punching holes in the blister.  That damned pin was the dullest one I've ever seen, so that sure felt good, but I was able to get it drained and get my sock and shoe back on.  Surf had needed to do the same thing at about mile 85 of Rio del Lago 100 last year when I was pacing him, and I remember telling him that the next few steps would be the most painful he'd ever taken.  And now it was my turn!  It took another 5-10 minutes of limping along before the toe numbed up enough that I could shuffle along again.  We hit the final road section and Surf mentioned we could still make it in under thirty two hours, and it's funny how stuff like that matters at mile 98.  I got passed by a couple of runners, but then managed to pick it up and run it in (a 12:22 mile 103 on Strava!).  We crossed the railroad tracks toward the finish line, Surf reached out to give me a fist bump, and I finally crossed at 31:54:29, 94th out of 127 finishers and 164 starters.

Cascade Crest 100 Finish
It is done

Huge thanks to Rich White and the rest of the Cascade Crest crew, and all of the incredible volunteers for taking care of us out there.  A really well run race, with a great old school vibe.  And of course thanks to my parents for being out there until midnight, and again the next day.  And to Surf for keeping me moving.  I pretty much always train by myself, so between pacing him at three 100s and now him pacing me here, I've now spent more hours on the trails with him than anyone else!

Cascade Crest Finish
"Thanks for the buckle, but I'd like to have some words with you about that Trail From Hell...."

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

2016 Western States - Crewing and Pacing (again)

0-3.  While the lottery odds have conspired against gaining entry for myself the past three years, Western States can't keep me away and last Friday I drove up to Squaw to crew and pace for the fourth time in the past five years.  This was to be the third time I'd be pacing my buddy Matt Searfus (Surf) in a 100 miler (once prior at States, once at Rio del Lago), who's lottery luck is much better than mine at 2-3!  After running a 23:01 at RdL last fall and a good block of training, he came into States uninjured and ready to push for that 24-hour finish and a Silver Buckle.

We all met up for lunch and discussed the crew and pacing plan for the following day.  Jim Hammond would be running from Foresthill (mile 62)  to the river (78), as I'd done in 2014 I'd take Surf across the river and up to Hwy 49 (93.5), and then his wife Becky would run him in to the finish.  Surf and Becky had their kids in tow, so I volunteered to accompany Becky and the kids to the aid stations at Robinson Flat (32) and Michigan Bluff (55).  Jim, his wife Jennifer, and two rookies to crewing ultras Jared and Ryan would hit the other side of the canyon and crew at Duncan Canyon (23.8) and Dusty Corners (38), and then we'd all meet up again at Foresthill (62). 

Elevation profile and Aid Stations
We relaxed that night in a condo outside Tahoe City, eating pizza and drinking a beer or two to relax before we all hit the sack early.  That 3:30 AM alarm would kick off a very, very long day for not only our runner, but for all of the crew as well.

Q:  Friday night crew meeting or fraternity reunion?  A:  BOTH!

We got to the start at Squaw around 4:30 AM, and Jen and I hiked up the hill a bit to watch Surf and the rest of the field begin the 4 miles climb to the Escarpment.  So much excitement and nervous energy.

Gordy trying to put our boy back together
Unfortunately Surf's race didn't unfold as he'd hoped.  When we first saw him at Robinson Flat (mile 32), his stomach had been giving him issues and he'd only taken in a single gel in the prior couple of hours, so he was falling behind the 24-hour pace.  That issue would stay with him until he got out of the high country and to a lower altitude, and he started feeling better.  But then coming into Michigan Bluff (mile 55) he developed pain in the back of his knee.  I walked him in to the aid station and suggested he get it looked at and worked on by the chiropractic and medical volunteers there.  So onto Gordy Ainsleigh's chiropractic table he went!  Gordy had started the race but pulled the plug within a couple of miles and walked back down to the start, so he spent the rest of the day volunteering at aid stations.  They worked on him a bit, taped him up,and sent him on his way but he was struggling. 

He picked it up a bit and was feeling better coming into Foresthill, and he and Jim headed off down the Cal St. section of trail. 

Looking good coming through Foresthill Aid Station, mile 62

I drove off to the Drivers Flat parking area where'd I'd be catching the shuttle down to Rucky Chucky later that night to begin my pacing duties, and tried to get a little sleep in the back of the car.

#dirtbagging in my mobile crew station, where I got about 2 total hours of sleep over 42 hours 

At 11:30 I headed down in the shuttle to Rucky Chucky, and the rest of the crew joined up a little later. At about 1:15 AM Surf came in, and after he refilled the bottles and fueled up we put on the life jackets and waded into the river to continue the journey on toward Auburn.  

Stairs down to the river crossing, with the lights of Rucky Chucky far visible on the other side

The fifteen or so miles that we ran together were pretty uneventful.  We talked some, ran and hiked in silence some.  He had long since given up on the 24 hour goal, but was also in no danger of missing cutoffs so he just kept moving, albeit slowly.  At one point he expressed frustration in his faulty knee as the section of trail was so runnable, but he just wasn't able to get it in gear.  As we hit the fire road before the climb up to Highway 49 I moved from running behind him to up in front and slowly picked up the pace a bit, and he hung on and did the same.  After almost five hours we came into the aid station and we sent him off with Becky toward the finish.  

We headed out to Placer High to await his arrival with his two boys in tow.  Surf rolled onto the track at just over the twenty-seven hour mark, and I sent the boys out to join him over the final 300 meters to the finish line.  Great moment for him and his family!  So proud to witness him gutting it out and just getting it done on a day that didn't go how he'd hoped it would.  Huge props to him, he is one tough and inspiring dude.

It is so rewarding to have had the opportunity to share in this experience with him again, and I know he hopes to be able to repay the favor someday!

Great moment for the Searfus family!  Photo Credit Jennifer Hammond
Outside of Surf's race were 353 other stories.  Just a few of them:

*  What a story it was that played out with Walmsley all day. There were a few guys running with him early (Sage Canaday primarily), but he took the lead about 10 miles in and just hammered it, putting time on the rest of the field and the course record.  I kept hearing words like "unprecedented" and "incredible" and "awe inspiring" as people that were at the aid stations when he came through tried to describe what they saw.  IRunFar said, "His effort seemed inhuman–truly asking all of us observing at aid stations to plausibly reset the definitions of what is possible." Look at his splits on Strava up through mile 90 - there's a whole lot of sub-7:00s and sub-8:00s in there.  He even dropped his pacer on the way down to the river about mile 71 - a professional runner could only keep up with him for 7-8 miles on the Cal St. trail, while he already had 62+ miles in his legs.  But then at about mile 92 instead of heading up a hill to the HWY 49 aid station he missed a turn, and ran along the river and came out about two miles down 49 from the aid station. He obviously felt a little defeated at that point, seeing the race of a (anyone's!) lifetime slip away.  He pretty much walked back, retracing his steps, walked up to the aid station and sat for 15-20 minutes before continuing on, and he ended up finishing in 20th place overall. 

*  The other piece of the Walmsley story was his river crossing.  For those that aren't familiar, at Mile 78 you hit the Rucky Chucky aid station at the American River.  There is a dam upstream, and every morning they let out a bunch of water so that there is enough flow for the rafters that frequent this area.  So the water is fairly high and fast in the morning, and gradually drops throughout the day.  You wade through with the help of a cable with volunteers helping to guide you across - it's been a little over waist high at it's deepest point all three times I've crossed as a pacer.  It's pretty common for the lead runners to jump in for a minute and submerge themselves to try and cool off, as it's still hot and sunny when they get there.  So Walmsley shows up, gets the life jacket put on, and wades in - the volunteers just think he's cooling off.  But then he just starts swimming across and the current sweeps him down stream.  The safety raft takes off after him, but he finally makes it over to the side. 

Here's iRunFar's video of the whole thing (turn down if at work, Bryon drops an F bomb at the beginning).  

Towards the end you can hear people yelling, "don't get in the raft" and "don't help him".  Why would they be yelling that you ask?  Well....

*  In 2006 Brian Morrison was training regularly up in Seattle with Scott Jurek, who had just won the race 7 times in a row.  Scott wasn't going back that year and predicted Brian would win, paced him for much of the way, and sure enough Brian hit the track in Auburn about 15 minutes ahead of second place.  But then this happened.


Because he was helped up and assisted across the finish line, he was disqualified and is officially listed as a DNF at Robie Point at mile 98.9 (last aid station before the finish).  Brian came back the next three years but never completed the race (nutrition, cancellation, injury I believe).  But he was back this year, 10 years later.  He was introduced at the pre-race meeting on Friday along with the elites, and everyone gave him a huge hand.  It was an emotional moment, with him wiping away tears.  We actually saw him several times throughout the race as he was running near Surf most of the day, and they knew each other from the running store in Seattle that Brian manages.  Well Brian finally managed to finish Western States, crossing the line with his kids in 27:26.  Huge hand from the crowd, great moment.

Brian Morrison finally gets that long-awaited finish!

*  As the clock wound down the final minutes during the "Golden Hour of Ultrarunning", the runners that have been out there all day, night, and into another hot day start streaming in.  In the final hour sixty-four of the two hundred eighty total finishers, or 23% of the total, came in and crossed the finish.  Those stories are always the best - Alison Sunshine Chavez, a breast cancer survivor being paced by Chris Jones; Annie Trent, the 26 year old daughter of one of the WS board members; three 60 years olds - and most are joined on the track by not only their pacers but their crew, family, and friends.  There were two 70 year olds that had started - 71 year old Gunhild Swanson, who had the amazing finish last year with 6 seconds to spare, and 72-year old Wally Hesseltine.  This time around Gunhild missed the cutoff at the river (how's this for a picture - Gordy Ainsleigh, Gunhild, and Ann Trason as her day ends at mile 72), but Wally was still coming.  As we got to the final moments a cheer erupted from the road outside the track, and Wally finally came down the ramp.  But unlike Gunhild running a sub-8:00 final mile to sneak in under the wire, Wally was in bad shape, leaning badly to one side and stumbling.  He crashed into a garbage can on the ramp and fell down.  He got up and kept moving, but time ran out after just a few more steps, probably 200 meters from the finish line.  He kept trying to go, leaning and falling again, then again.  Everyone in the crowd is chanting "Wally, Wally", just like they had chanted Brian's name back in 2006.  On the straight away he fell once more, and had to be helped to his feet and across the line.  Totally sad moment, and yet inspiring at the same time.  He was one of three runners that came in after the official cutoff, and while Tropical John announced their names and said they "covered the distance", they don't go down as official finishers but DNFs at Robie Point. 

*  Erika Lindland does it again!  16th at Devil's Thumb, 12th at Foresthill, 11th at HWY 49, and somewhere in the final 6.5 miles she moved into 10th to take the coveted F10 spot.  Two years in a row in the top 10, so deserved.  Congrats to her.  She keeps doing this, she'll have to stop calling it a fluke!


There are a a few hundred more stories, but that's enough for here and now since I know not everybody (ok,very few people) are as in to this race as I am.  Every time I get the chance to experience this race, it becomes more a part of me and I become even more determined to run it some day.  I'll be back in Auburn this December for my 4th straight lottery, maybe 2017 will be my year!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Embracing The Suck at The Canyons 100K

Work travel had me on the road Tuesday-Thursday, and my normal three or four days of obsessive packing, unpacking, repacking, all while referencing an extensive spreadsheet was reduced to five minute bursts of activity between work phone calls and emails on Friday.  I had hoped to be on the road by 2:00 or so, but it was 3:30 by the time I finally had the gear put together and the Xterra packed and set up for sleeping and hit the road.

Dirtbagging at the Start/Finish
I pulled in to Foresthill School about 7:00 and got set up in the parking lot in the back.  Tents were being pitched in the field, others were dirtbagging in their cars like I was, and a few lucky ones had RVs or Vanagons.  I checked in and picked up my bib, and then set up my backpacking stove to heat up the rice and salmon I had managed to put together that morning, and cracked open a can of Pinot Noir – nothing but the finest!  I wandered around a bit, talked to a few other runners, all while trying to relax but definitely feeling nervous energy.  

Dinner of Champions.  Or Back-of-the-Packers
I ran into Tim Tollefson, who I had met briefly a few months back at SF Running Company’s premier of Billy Yang’s movie Mt. Blanc.  Dude couldn’t have been nicer and we chatted for a good twenty minutes about our goals for the next day (he was running the 50K, which he won), our plans for the rest of the year, his experiences racing in Europe, and sleeping in our cars.  I headed back to the car, put the Western States movie This is Your Day on the iPad and sipped on some wine trying to wind down.  I finally settled in to the sleeping bag around 10:00 and set the alarm for 3:45, hoping to get a decent bit of sleep for a change.

Of course I woke up at about 1:45 AM, keeping intact my record of never getting any real sleep the night before a big race.  I dozed off and on a bit before finally getting up at about 4:00 as the parking lot started to fill with runners that hadn’t gotten in the night before.  I got dressed and headed up to race HQ for some coffee and to drop off the drop bags that would be waiting for me here at mile 31 and down at the river at mile 48.  Nervous energy filled the room as runners milled about, chatting and staying warm. I got a big hug from and talked for a minute with Erika Lindland, who then headed out a few minutes early to line up in front, where she would remain throughout the race. 

It's Go Time!
Lets Do this - First 50K
With the achilles injury I’d been dealing with through the winter, my training hasn’t been what I’d hoped for the race that was to be my 2017 Western States Lottery qualifier.  I got in what I could, spent a lot of time hiking, running downhills, and actually had a decent April that gave me confidence that while this was going to be a long day I should be able to get it done under the twenty hour cutoff.  With over 14,000' of gain and loss over 63 miles, I knew there wasn't a whole lot of flat in this race.  

Other than running along the river, it's pretty much all up and down

I almost always start at the back and ease into a long race, but I took that even farther than usual for this one.  At 5:00 AM the race started, and I did what I’ve been doing in training and walked for an entire mile to make sure to get the calves and achilles nice and warmed up (no point doing a pre-race warmup for a 63 mile race!).  This fit in with my overall strategy for the race – take it really easy for the first 50K, hope to have enough life in my legs and quads to run much of the mostly downhill 15 mile section to the river, and then hike well back up the 15 miles to Foresthill.

Ready to Start

Within about two minutes I was one of the last three people in the race.  Running with the mayor, as they say (like how the mayor brings up the rear of a parade sitting in the convertible).  But I was ok with that – at least I kept reminding myself that I needed to be.  A mile in we hit the downhill section of Bath Rd, and I settled into a comfortable pace as we cruised down that and then onto the trail that would take us on our first two mile climb, and then down into Volcano Canyon.  The conga line had started to spread out a bit, but then we came to a complete stop as people lined up to use a rope to tiptoe across some rocks in Volcano Creek. Once I had an opening I went around the line and plowed through the creek in knee deep water– the forecast called for rain most of the morning so my feet were getting wet one way or another!

Tip-toeing across Volcano Creek
We climbed up to Michigan Bluff and it was great to be in the spot where I’ve spent many hours waiting for runners at Western States, and where my pacing duties began in 2012 the first time I crewed/paced here.  I had put together a pace chart with 16 hour, 18 hour, and 20 hour splits and I was right in front of the 16 hour split, exactly where I hoped to be at just 10K into this thing.  After a quick pit stop on the side of the trail, it was onto the section of the course I had never experienced before as we dropped down into El Dorado Canyon.  The rain started to pick up here, and there were a few sections of trail that were starting to get pretty sloppy with mud, made more so by the fact that about 250 other runners had already torn it up.  I remember thinking that it was really going to be a mess on the way back, little did I know what was ahead….

The climb up to The Pump aid station was long, 2500’ over about 4 ½ miles, and I just kept comfortably power hiking and moving up the field a bit.  Somewhere in this section the leaders started heading back toward Foresthill, including Erika in 2nd place yelling “SEAN GROVE” and high fiving me as she cruised on by.  That gave me a big smile, and after a few more sloppy sections and continued off-and-on rain I hit that aid station at mile 13.5 in about 3:20, still right on that 16 hour split pace.  Western States Board President John Trent was working the aid station, and he took my pack to refill the bladder with Tailwind, asked how I was feeling, and sent me off towards Devil’s Thumb
Schranz playing Taps. Photo credit Chloe Romero
We ran by Ultrarunner Podcast’s Eric Schranz and his Alpenhorn, and then dropped down Devil’s Thumb toward the Swinging Bridge.  The rain had picked up and we were hitting the steepest part of the course, and that proved to be a tough combination. The mud was so slick and thick that we were sliding down the trail, grabbing at roots and branches trying to stay under control.  At the same time the front of the pack is trying to make their way back up, and it became a tricky balance of trying not to lose control and mow people down like bowling pins.  I did all I could to keep one of my favorite mantras in mind, “Embrace the Suck.”  After maybe a half a mile or so the trail firmed up a bit, but there were a couple of other sections like that on the way down.  We finally made it down to the Swinging Bridge, I paused for a quick picture, and then it was scrambling back up the Thumb through the mud and rain, at 24 and 25 minute/mile pace up the two mile, 1500’ sloppy climb.  Every step up in some sections my foot would slide half way back down, and it was murder on the hip flexors.  So much energy used.  It was a big relief to finally get back to The Pump AS and get restocked by John again (“you look great!” he lyingly exclaimed to me).  I was now behind the 16 hour pace, as expected after the climb up, but still feeling good about where I was and how I was moving.  My fueling with Tailwind and gels (200-250 calories an hour) and hydration were good, and I was taking an S-cap every 60-90 minutes even in the cool temperatures.  
Pictures just don't do justice to the amount of mud out there!
Back down the five mile descent to El Dorado Creek, and as expected it was getting sloppier and sloppier through here as well.  I was getting close to 16-hour pace again as I hit the AS there but that slipped away as I began the 2,000’ climb back up to Michigan Bluff, commenting to a runner near me that I now understood the death stare I’ve seen from many runners as they stumble into what is the 55-mile mark of Western States.  A few more miles through Volcano Canyon and up Bath Rd, and I was back to the start area and the half way point of Foresthill in 9:07, just about right on the 18-hour pace.
I sat down for the first time and was brought my drop bag, and realized that in my haste to pack I’d put half of the stuff I had meant for my mile 48 drop bag in this one.  That meant grabbing another headlamp, swapping out the rain shell, and stuffing a new long sleeve base layer onto my pack in case it got cold with night fall. I was pissed at myself for screwing something up so basic, but tried to stay positive.  I took off my shoes and socks and my feet had the wrinkled, white look of having been encased in wet socks for 9 hours, so it was good to dry them off, re-lube, and get dry socks on.  I found that one of my new socks had worn out in the back near the heel, another screw up of not checking all my gear beforehand!  I had some KT tape in the bag, so stuck that to my foot, got the shoes back on and headed out down Foresthill Rd. to begin the 15 mile, mostly downhill Cal St. trail to the river.

Another 50K to go
My quads were sore but still working, but my old friend the right IT band had started to act up the last few miles and I knew this next section of trail would really test it.  As we dropped down onto Cal St., that familiar stabbing pain in the outside of the knee had me yelping out loud, and I begin to just repeat “please hold up, please hold up, please hold up”, knowing 15 miles of downhill would test the hell out of it.  But my energy remained great, my stomach was solid, and I knew I just had to keep moving at a steady pace and I was going to get this thing done.  To my surprise, the IT band didn’t get worse, and really only caused issues during steep sections of descent.  Down, down to the Cal 1 AS (and another “SEAN GROVE!” and hi five as Erika ran by up the hill), up a few short but challenging climbs to Cal 2, and then down the 7 mile descent and run along the river to the AS at mile 48.  I sat down again, re-lubed my feet and changed socks, and headed back out along the river and then back up out of the canyon.  I had passed a handful of runners during this section and anybody who had passed me I had caught again, so I was feeling really good about how I was moving.  I was now 50 miles into a race and still able to shuffle along, and even if they were 14-ish minute miles I was still running much of it!  My Fenix 3 with the supposed 20-hour battery life died at the 15 hour mark during this 7-mile stretch, leaving me running a little blind.  But after hours of doing the math in my head, I knew I had built up plenty of cushion against the 20-hour cutoff so I was in good shape.

Climbing back out of the American River Canyon on Cal St.
Nightfall hit during this section, and I shuffled along all by myself for a good hour or two.  There was a woman not too far behind me that kept letting out a “Whoop! Whoop!” every few minutes, and I later heard her telling someone she thought something was following her through the tops of the trees!  I started to let out a “Hey bear!” every once in a while, knowing that bears and cougars (not the good kind) are pretty common out here.  I finally made it back up to Cal 2, and didn’t really realize how much energy that climb and running alone for so long had taken out of me.  But Ann Trason did!  Yes, the 11-time winner of Western States and the greatest ultrarunner of all time was now working that aid station, and greeted me as I came in with “whoa, you look like you need some Coke!”  I had put off eating or drinking anything but Tailwind, gels, and a few cups of broth until that point, saving the sugary, caffeine-y goodness of Coke for nightfall.  And it was so good. She got me a second cup, some broth, and two sections of quesadilla.  We chatted for a few minutes about her coaching clients that were out there, how well Erika was doing (she ended up taking second!), and then she walked me out of the aid station and sent me on my way.  So cool.

I was now re-energized, and after another 30-45 minutes of shuffling along (I’m still running!), I finally caught up to a group of 5-6 runners.  I moved up to the front of them, and another guy and I pulled away while everyone else hiked.  We ran along for several miles, hiking up the hills and shuffling the short flat sections, until he finally stopped and bent over, grabbing his knees.  I shined my headlamp up ahead and saw a really steep section, said goodbye to him, and kept on going. With my Garmin dead I really didn’t know how far I had left or what time it was, but I knew it was only a few more miles.  I finally started seeing lights of the houses of Foresthill, and heard music from a house party somewhere.  “Let’s go, finish this thing!” I kept telling myself.  Finally, it was up onto the paved road of town, and damn that road was way shorter on the way out than on the way back up.  Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, I’m gonna run this thing in. 

And run it in I did, crossing the line at 18:04:29.  181st out of 221 finishers and probably 260-270 starters.

Post-race thoughts
I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of a race, especially in terms of executing my plan.   I know I left some time on the course with my conservative start, but it was what made sense to do given my goal and my training.  I’ve run better and finished much higher at some 50Ks, but every race 50M and up (and this was my 6th) I’ve had serious issues that left me wondering what could have been and absolutely miserable at times.  IT bands, stomach, blisters, puking, light headedness, all sorts of things.  And yes, my IT did act up again, but it didn’t get worse and it didn’t keep me from running.  My stomach was solid.  My energy was good for most of the race.  My feet held up, only one tiny blister which I didn’t even notice until the next day.  I had some low spots, but I was able to problem solve and get myself out of them.  The second half of the race I moved up 17 spots and was only passed by one runner that entire time.  I’ve never moved that well (yes, relatively) for that long.  And I ran a negative split of 9:07:45/8:56:44!  Unlike other races where I’ve been a wreck at the end, I was eating tacos and drinking beer within 15 minutes of finishing.  No doubt the cool temperatures played a part in all of that, but it was the closest I’ve come to “nailing” a long race.  And for the fourth year in a row, my name will be in the Western States Lottery come December!

Huge thanks to RDs Chaz, Chris, and Pete, and to all of the amazing volunteers out there on what was at times a pretty miserable day.  What a great event on some amazing and historic trails.