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.