Monday, May 28, 2012

Mountain Running and Karma at Crowders

A great Memorial Day view atop Crowders Mountain.

It's Memorial Day, and I decided to spend the day at Crowders Mountain State Park for some mountain trail running with one of my running buddies, Sam.  Since I am training for a 50-miler in a month (oh yeah, by the way, I'm running a 50-miler in a month...), this mountain run was the second day of a back-to-back long run weekend, as well as a good opportunity to put some foot time in on rugged trails.  I did not want to spend my next trail race on my chin like I did at Long Cane earlier this month. 

My focus race, the OSS/CIA 50M Night Run, will have about 5,000 feet of elevation gain over the 50 mile duration--a solid 3 out of 5 in ultra running terrain difficulty rating.  Today's run was just over 14 miles, but Sam and climbed a total of 2,540 feet across that distance.  Therefore, mile-for-mile, we got some good solid, more-than-appropriate elevation practice today, and after a tough road run the day before at that.  But as with most trail runs, and any adventure worth mentioning, the real rewards lay in the journey, not the destination.

Sam picked me up at my house while our respective wives and dogs were still asleep, and we cruised down the interstate to Crowders.  Although the park opens at 8am on paper, the gates were wide open for us at 7:20.  Sam warned me that we would be running the entire 2-mile ascent to the summit of Crowders Mountain.  Mind you, the average grade of incline for this section is near 10%, with stretches near the top approaching 20% or greater.  However, Sam's pride was an excellent driver.  Having run this route with our mutual ultra running friend Jeremy (veteran of a score of ultras, including the fabled Beast series in Virginia), he wanted to be able to boast to him that he ran the whole ascent without walk-breaks. 

We settled in to a responsible pace.  Whenever I run prolonged climbs, I repeat the word "patience" in my head.  Sam and I didn't talk much for want of saving breath for the climb.  After a mile, we were feeling pretty good.  Another quarter mile later, as the slope just kept increasing, we were not feeling well at all.  The dull ache of lactate build-up turned into a burn.  After half a dozen switchbacks of staring up steeper slopes, our pride gave way to self-preservation.  We admitted defeat and walked most of the way left to the top of Crowders Mountain.  The view was worth the climb, albeit still shrouded by low clouds.  The views would improve as the day went on.

Next came the stairs--333 stairs to be exact.  To come down from the mountain on the other side, we had to negotiate a few hundred feet of variably spaced stairs built into the slope.  This is harder than it sounds when your legs are already fatigued.  The stairs gave way to a steeply descending gravel road, and after a few hundred meters, we detoured onto the rocky single track of Crowders Trail.  The trail was nice and technical.  Unlike many mountain trails, there were not any switchbacks to speak of; the rocky trail led straight down the mountain.  After 10 minutes, were were still descending.  When the trail finally did flatten out, I was feeling a little zapped mentally from having to pay so much attention to my footing. 

Just before the 5 mile mark, Sam and I came to a trail intersection and took a right onto the Pinnacle Trail.  This trail moved pretty quickly for a mile or two, but then it took a progressively steep route of switchbacks up the face of the day's second mountain, King's Pinnacle.  We traversed a section of rock outcroppings that was so rugged, we had to walk around cobble to boulder-sized obstacles.  The climb began in earnest after that.  We ran what we could until the trail was what we both agreed was totally unrunnable.  Even for a hike, it was a tough slog, but again, we were rewarded with magnificent views.
Sam at the end of the trail just before summiting the Pinnacle.
The sun came out to give us a great view of the surrounding country.
Now, all we had to do was make our way back.  Running down the Pinnacle trail was fun to say the least.  Gravity did most of the work while we concentrated on our footing and on slowing ourselves on slim tree trunks and branches.  In no time, we reached a trail crossing near the bottom of the slope.  To the left was the way from whence we came, full of pace-killing rock outcroppings.  To the right was a welcoming, totally runnable trail.  As far as we could surmise, this trail would lead us to the Visitor Center, where we would replenish water and pick up the Crowders Trail from the other end.  Best laid plans...

The new trail did indeed loop around to the Visitor Center...we just looped the wrong way.  We resorted to looking at Sam's paper map, which had all but disintegrated in his SpiBelt from the saturating sweat of the humid day.  We doubled back, picked up the road through the park, and followed it to the Visitor Center like a couple of urban explorers.  After making a pit stop and filling water, we were off again, and we picked up the Crowders Trail in no time...going the right way even.

We settled in to what I thought was the most comfortable rhythm of the day, keeping sub-9 minute pace on technical footing and rolling hills.  After 20 minutes of running in the zone, Sam stopped abruptly behind me.  I paused and looked back, and he had the deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes.  "You OK?" I asked.  He shook his head, reaching behind him.  I thought he had tweaked a muscle in his back or leg.  No.  He had lost his keys.  Hopefully, they were at the Visitor Center, but they could just as easily be on the 2 miles of trail between here and there, in which case we likely would never see them again.  Luckily, I had my phone in my hydration vest, and Sam called his wife.  She would drive to the state park and meet us as we were finishing our run.

There was nothing else to do but head back to where we started.  We settled into a nice groove again, but when we hit the gravel road leading to the stairs, we walked.  We ran a few short stretches, but the incline was steep enough that we would have to be fools (well, even more fools than we already were) not to walk it.  The stairs came next.  I didn't hesitate.  I settled into a climb and counted them as they went.  Not that the stairs were fun, but they seemed to go by without seeming interminably long.  Sam and I took another breather at the top of Crowders.  We snapped some more photos of the awesome view as well.
Behind me was a vertical cliff side leading a few hundred feet straight down.
Sam and I discussed our plan for the last 2 miles, which were bound to be the most punishing.  Overall, after having run 32 miles since the previous morning, my legs were feeling pretty good.  But we both had to be careful.  2 miles of screaming downhill could shred our quads in no time.  We agreed that we would cruise as best we could, not fighting momentum, but we would not push the pace.  I did my best to keep my feet turning over so as not to rock my body with bounding strides.  It helped to lean into the climbs as I often do during my hill training, but I found myself outrunning my cardio if I leaned too far into them.  Sam kept a steady pace at my side.  A mile into the descent, I almost ran myself out of control, but I barely gained my composure before rounding the next switchback.  Sam would later tell me of the disaster he thought I was about to have.  The entire descent took less than 15 minutes.  As soon as Sam and I reached the parking area and stopped running, the humid, stagnant air immediately caught up to us.  I longed for the Clif Bar that I had packed as a post run snack, but it was in the locked car.  Crap. 

Sam's wife Steph came to our rescue with a spare key for Sam's car, and we nourished ourselves, rehydrated, and changed into some dry clothes.  Hoping for the unlikely, Sam drove to the Visitor Center to see if he had left his key at the facility.  We searched the grounds where we had repacked our gear and did not find them.  But, upon checking with the ranger at the front office, Sam was more than relieved to find that someone had turned in his keys.  The ranger conveyed how lucky Sam was as well.  I credit good karma.  Despite the distress of having lost the keys, finding them at the end of the day's run kind of felt like icing on a cake. 

Today's gear:

Shoes: Montrail Mountain Masochist.  For runs this rugged, I use a traditional trail running shoe.  Compared to every other shoe I have, the Masochist is a tank, and long miles of technical footing warrant a stable platform with plenty of protection over the toes, under the foot, and on the sidewalls.  This is the bread and butter of the Montrail line.

Hydration: Nathan Minimist hydration backpack and Nathan Quickdraw 22oz handheld bottle.  I had water in the pack and HEED in the bottle.  This most likely will be my combo for the OSS/CIA 50.

Nutrition: GU and Clif Bar gels.  Clif Bar as a post-run snack.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Long Cane 50K Race Recap

It's hard to sit down and write this recap. Not because I don't know what to say, rather because a dull pain envelops my quads everytime I try to sit down. Such is the reminder whenever one races a fairly hilly, quite technical trail 50K.
Barnaby and me relaxing the evening before the race.

Often, I go to races by myself, give my best effort, and then journey home of my own accord after texting my wife and letting her know how I did. This time, I was lucky enough to have Heidi and Barnaby (our oldest dog) join me for the weekend mini-vacation that culminated in my running a 50K race through the woods along the Long Cane trail near Abbeville, SC. Heidi, Barnaby, and I stayed at a hotel in nearby Greenwood the night before, and I spent the evening carbo-loading on peanut butter bagels, pretzels, orange juice, and whatever else I could get into my stomach without upsetting my system. I had been aiming for 3200 calories a day for the past couple of days in an effort to max out my glycogen stores so I would not suffer a debilitating bonk like I did at Umstead Marathon nine weeks earlier. Unfortunately, there was a motorcycle convention in town that weekend, so neither Heidi nor I could manage a very deep sleep the night before the race. Barnaby slept fine.

On Sunday morning, I laid out all of my mid-race nutrition to find the best way of balancing it in my multi-pocketed running shorts without the cargo bouncing around too much and pulling the shorts down to my ankles. The night before, I tested out my load while running back and forth in our hotel room, much to Heidi's entertainment. It seemed that no matter how I stacked things, I would be spending the first hour with a bouncing waistline, until I ate some of food that was weighing me down.

What a beautiful backdrop!

My cheering section!
With the forecast calling for temperatures reaching the high 80's with high humidity, I opted to go without a shirt to cut down on chafing and allow more sweat to evaporate heat away from my core. I also would be carrying two handheld bottles with me: a Nathan Quickdraw 22oz that I would fill and refill with water, and a 7oz mini-bottle in the other hand that I filled with a few gels and a little bit of water to thin out the mix. I also inverted the strap on the 7oz'er so that the bottle rested on the outside of my hand, leaving my palm free to hold other food items, like shot bloks or Clif Bars. I packed a couple of Clif Bars and a pouch of energy chews in a large ziplock bag and marked it as my drop bag for the aid station at mile 15. I carried everthing else--gels, shot bloks, stinger waffles, etc.--on my person.

We arrived at the Parson's River campsite at 6am, an hour before the start time. I checked in and introduced myself to Terri Hayes, the race director and creator of the South Carolina Ultras on Trails series. Terri organizes events like Long Cane for no entry fee (although donations are accepted, and I gladly threw some cash her way), so that veteran and rookie ultra runners alike can bank some enjoyable trail running in an ultra race setting with no real emphasis on fast times or age group awards, etc. After introducing myself to some other runners--some of whom I recognized from their online blogs--I geared up and joined the crowd gathering around Terri for the trail briefing.
All geared up and ready to run.

The 50K course (there also was a 55 mile option) would be a large figure 8, where miles 5-10 and miles 20-25 would be along the same winding cut-through trail in the middle of the map. After the first cut-through, runners would follow the top loop counter-clockwise and eventually reach the entrance to the cut-through from the other direction at mile 20. Then, turning right after about five miles, we would follow the bottom loop clockwise until we reached the beginning of the course. 95 percent of the course was single track, with a few short sections of gravel road, and about half a mile of total pavement. Thankfully, nearly all of the course would be shaded by tall trees.

At the start of the race, I grabbed a spot at the front of the pack. As Terri started the race, I settled into a pack near the front and hit the trails. Within the first half-mile, I passed a handful of runners until I joined the back of a small pack that included fellow DARTer Val Wrenholt, another runner named Ann, and a fellow 50K runner called David. Val and Ann were planning on running the 55 mile option, bu their first 32 miles would be along our 50K course.
Just after the start.

Originally, I had planned to run Long Cane conservatively so I could focus on nutrition and hydration in anticipation of futre longer ultras. However, since the temperature was comfortable at the start, I figured I would get as many quick miles in as I could before the heat set in. This was Val, Ann, and David's plan as well. After a mile, we had settled into a comfortably quick pace and I was just starting to break a cool sweat. I had my first fall at mile 1.2. I bounced back up and quickly caught up with my other three cohorts, who probably didn't even notice my stumble. Unfortunately, this would not be my last or worst fall of the day.

Unlike other races, where I don't mess with nutrition until getting a few miles under my belt, I implemented my feeding schedule right from the start of the clock. Every mile, I ate a shot block and chased it with either water or gel-water. This would add up to about 250 calories for the first hour, not counting anything I grabbed at the first aid station. Five miles into the race, we reached Aid Station 1, which offered water refills and directed us onto the cut-through trail. I had finished my shot blocks by then, so I refilled my water bottle, and thinned out my gel-water flask, and I hopped back on the trails right behind David. Ann--who was wearing a Camelbak--went right through AS1 without stopping, and Val quickly gave chase. David and I gave them a wide berth. If we cought up to them, so be it. After all, they were running a different race anyway.

I got to know David over the next few miles. Although he and I were not peers in terms of age group or size, we shared a lot of commonalities in race times, and we tacitly agreed on a comfortable pace. According to the volunteers at AS1, there were only two runners ahead of Ann, Val, and us, so we were front-of-the-packers. The cut-through section offered some technical switchbacks and a lot of ups and downs. I fell a couple more times within the first few miles after AS1, but I assured David I was fine, and that I just needed to get my trail focus back in order. Normally, I would consider myself a pretty sure-footed trail runner, but today was not my day. I made note of some of the longer uphills we ran, and told myself I most likely would be walking those when I came to them again in a few hours.

About 90 minutes into the race, I saw Ann fifty yards ahead of me. More importantly, I saw Aid Station #2 just beyond her. Ann breezed by AS2 just as she did AS1, but David and I stopped to refill water and grab a bite to eat. I ate a stinger waffle and a 1/4 PBJ, and then I was off. Now we were on the long, counter-clockwise top loop, but the miles went by fairly quickly due to the lack of switchbacks and the slightly more forgiving trail. David and I continued to chat to pass the time, keeping a steady but purposeful pace since the heat was yet to descend upon us. After a few miles, I pulled away from David and enjoyed some faster pace trail running. I wasn't going marathon-fast, but it was fast enough to keep me interested in the trail. I made it a point to suck down another gel or two to make room in my pockets for the Clif Bars I was going to pick up from my drop bag at the 3rd Aid Station. The extra calories could never hurt.

I arrived at AS3 in what seemed like no time. I pulled a bandana from my bib belt, soaked it in cold water, and wrapped it around my head. As the day got hotter, this would help to cool my core temperature. I grabbed my goodies from my drop bag, ate some gummy bears and a salt tab, thanked the AS3 volunteers, and shot onto the trail after David, who was quicker through the station since he did not have a drop bag. Within a mile, I caught up to David. The trail was a bit technical, and the spotted light from the tree canopy was making the footing difficult to see. Earlier, David had informed me of his colorblindness, so I hoped he would have better luck with his footing than I had up to that point.

Again, I pulled away from David. In addition to two Clif Bars, I had a pouch of Powerbar Energy Blasts that I was holding in my free hand. I continued my scheduled eating of one blast per mile, as I did with the shot bloks in the beginning of the race. Eating on the run kept me going, but it also gave me something to do. I am more alert when I multi-task. As long as I did not take too much attention away from my footing, the time would fly by. Although, since most of what I had been eating on the trail so far was sugar based, my gut was beginning to beckon for a break.

AS4 was right at the 20 mile mark. I was feeling pretty good for 20 miles. There was a hint of tightness in my hips from continuous motion, but I took that as a sign to back off and keep the Wall far off in the distance. I re-doused my bandana, filled my bottles, grabbed some M&Ms, and disposed of some of the trash I was stashing. David cruised into AS4 just as I was leaving. I gave him a shout, then I turned on my heels and ran.

This the start of my second trip through the cut-through trail. The next aid station was 7 miles away, but there was an unmanned water drop halfway there. I know a lot of people who have run this race dislike the cut-through trail, but I was happy to run it twice. Even though I had fallen a couple of times, I appreciated the technicallity of this part of the course. I ran it a little more cautiously this time through, as I already had spent over three hours running, and one cannot take agility and concentration for granted at that point. At mile 22.5, I took my first walk break. I was still in good shape to run, but I figured I would save some energy on these hills, especially since this 50K course was longer than 50K, and I still had at least 10 more miles to run. I also walked to give myself a chance to eat a Clif Bar. After sugary gels, shot bloks, and power blasts, it felt good to get some solid, oat-based energy with some protein and fat in my system. I forced myself to eat slowly and take small bites, looking and listening over my shoulder for signs of David or any other runners approaching. With my vantage of the past few switchbacks, I could tell I had a lot of empty room behind me. I did not start running again until I had finished chewing and swallowing the last bite. I felt better already, like I had only run 15 miles instead of close to 23.

When I reached the unmanned water drop, I again took my time. I poured out my water over my head to cool myself down, adjusted my food items in my pockets, and refilled my bottle once again. Just as before, David came into the water drop as I was about to leave. I grabbed a water bottle out of the case, opened it, and handed it to him. He was looking pretty strong, but he admitted that the heat was starting to get to him. I gave him a pat and continued on the trail.

Here's where I started to get a little tired and lonely. I picked up the pace whenever I started to feel stagnant, and after a couple of close calls, I fell once again. This time, my torso flattened on the ground. I was only on the ground for two seconds, but it seemed like longer. I admonished myself to get up and pay attention! When I found myself looking at my watch more and more often, I could tell I was starting to get fatigued. Hell, at this point in a 50K, I'm allowed to feel a little zapped. When I reached mile 26.2, my watch read 4:04. It would have been a nice mental bonus to have a sub-4 hour marathon split, but I'm happy I took a couple walk breaks anyway. The important thing was the I was not bonking.

Aid Station 5 was a welcome sight. Although there was another aid station less than a mile from the finish, this was my last real aid station before the final leg of the race. Douse, refill, 1/2 banana, Clif Bar, "Which way?" "Thank you!" David caught up to me at the aid station once again, and another 20-something runner was right behind him, coming into AS5 as David and I were leaving. I could tell David was slowing down considerably due to the heat, but I certainly was not speeding up. For the last time, I opened up some space on David, and he and I would not be in conversational range for the remainder of the race. After tracing a tree line across an open field, I was back on the single track.

Five, six miles left...I wasn't sure. Everyone gave different measurements for the actual course length, and it was nowhere near certified. "Oh well," I thought, "I'll run until it's done." The trail spilled out onto one of the few paved stretches of the course: a couple hundred yards of gradual uphill followed by a couple hundred yards of steep uphill, all in the bright sun. I ran until I got to the bottom of the steep part and then settled into a walk. My leg muscles were telling me how to plan out the rest of the race: walk the uphills, run easy on the flats, and run fast on the long as I don't bust my ass! Before the flagged trail blazes directed me back into the woods, I glanced back and saw David a quarter mile behind me, fighting to get some shade as he walked along the side of the road.

I stuck to my terrain-based running plan and kept a respectable pace for the last leg of any ultra, although things were starting to get a little old when my watch showed the true 50K distance and I still had a couple of "bonus" miles left to go. Oddly, my split at my recorded 50K mark was 4:57:59...the exact time to the second of my previous 50K PR! If I had been one second faster, I might have been pissed, but now I was just amused...and tired.

A few other runners came towards me going the opposite direction. I recongnized one as Ann, who was on her reverse leg to complete 55 miles, but the others...I never recalled them passing me. I later found out that they had taken a wrong turn a ways back and gotten to Aid Station 6 far too early. The volunteers at AS6 turned them back down the trail to make up some of their lost mileage. I at least was going the right way, but I couldn't keep track of whether there was one, two, or three other people ahead of me. All I knew is that I was still very much ahead of most of the field.

The bonus miles were truly brutal. I still had a little bit of energy left in the tanks, but Terri had saved the only real steep and rocky ascents for this final part of the race. I came to embrace the uphills because they meant I could walk. I found myself still able to glide (sort of) on the descents, but my quads were starting to feel trashed. I rejoiced when I saw Aid Station 6, which was a scant 1/2 mile from the finish. At AS6, runners were given the choice of turning around and running the course in reverse (sans cut-through) for a 55-miler, or continuing to the campsite for a 50K finish. I told them I was doing the 50K, and they directed me back the way I came at the beginning of the race. They also informed me that the campsite had BBQ, dessert, and all kinds of other fixin's waiting for me. I replied that my wife and dog were there, and that's all I cared about at the time. When I asked how many 50K'rs were ahead of me, they said there was only one. Sweet, I was just a few minutes' jog from a second place finish.

1/4 mile left.  Don't stop me now!
I ran down the road to catch my last 1/4 mile of trail to the finish and was rewarded with a bonus. Hiedi happened to be a taking Barnaby for a walk, and they were emerging from the trailhead as I was approaching. She immediately apologized because she was not waiting at the finish line, but neither she nor I thought I would be finishing this early. I didn't care. I was almost done, and she was there to cheer me on minutes before. She took my picture as I cantered into the trail towards the finish.

The finish area at Long Cane really speaks to the laid back nature of Terri's races. There were maybe a half-dozen people there. Terri, was keeping the time on a wrist watch, another volunteer was handing out the hand-crafted finishers' medals, a couple of people were in the pavillion serving BBQ, and who I assumed was the other finisher was headed off to the showers. I strode to the finish at 5:18:31, and Terri confirmed I was the second to arrive. One of the other volunteers commented that the one person who finished ahead of me looked a little worse for wear. The final distance measured on my GPS watch was 33.3 miles. 20-Something Runner from AS5 was the third to finish, and David came in a few moments after him, drenched in sweat. I congratulated both on a great run, and they did the same for me. Shortly after, Heidi arrived with Barnaby to congratulate me and take a few post-race pictures, including some of my trail wounds.

One of my battle wounds.

I feel ya, Brother!

Long Cane was a fantastic event, and one could not ask for anything more from a race director who dedicated herself to creating free ultras for beginner and experienced trail runners alike. I learned a lot from this race. I got a feel for a nutrition plan that works for me over ultra distances. I learned that time away from the trails lets your trail running skills decay. I learned that I can not only complete ultras, but I am to the level where I can compete, at least at the 50K distance. Perhaps next year I will come back and take a shot at the 55-miler. However, the most important lesson I learned was that having a loving wife and dog waiting for you can bring any finish line closer to you.
One happy family!


Shoes: New Balance MT 110. These were great for 50K, but I might make the step up to a more substancial shoe for longer, more rugged races.

Compression: 2XU calf sleeves

Shorts: RaceReady LD with a Nathan bib belt pinned to the waistband all the way around.

Hydration: Nathan 22oz Quickdraw and Fuel Belt 7oz Dash handheld. S!Cap salt tabs.

Nutrition: Powerbar gels, GU gels, Clif Shot Bloks, Clif Bars, Honey Stinger Waffles. I consumed about 1700 calories during the race counting onboard nutrition and AS food. I probably expended close to twice that.
Barnaby looks how I felt.
Just some of what I ate on the trail.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Last Musings Before Long Cane

It's early morning, and it's dark out. I've just finished my last shakeout run before Long Cane 50K on Saturday. I've eaten a hearty, carb-filled breakfast, and my 48-hour gorging period officially has begun. The short, 4-mile shakedown run is a special part of my training/taper period. It's not a training run per ce; at this point all the training has been put into my system already. Rather, it's one final bio mechanical inventory before a big race. Am I keeping my knees from swinging out laterally? Check. Landing forefoot under the hips? Check. Arms bent tight and swinging close to the body? Check. Calves/Achilles feel ok? Check. Etc. Also, the shakeout is a final chance to get myself mentally centered in a running context. I do a lot of visualization, sometimes of past races. I try to dredge up memories of bonking hard at Umstead, and then imagine myself fueling and hydrating and pushing through the agony. I try to imagine the last 200 yards at Salem Lake, where I was depleted from 31 miles and nearly 5 hours on foot, but I somehow found a sprint inside me while other ultra runners cheered on. I conjure images of technical single track at the Whitewater Center and Fisher Farm, and I see myself bounding down the slopes and dodging roots and rocks. I recall watching the sunrise at Relay For Life, where I had walked all night and spent nearly 7 hours on foot. It's a lot of mind-wandering for a 30 minute run. I packed my bag last night. I'm relying on plenty of old gear and nutritional stand-bys, but there definitely will be some experimenting during this ultra. Electrolytes have been my main worry since aid stations are 5-7 miles apart, and the high temperature will reach 93. Food is another worry. While Terri Hayes is renowned for having great aid stations at her races, I learned from Frosty 50 that it's good to have plenty of your own nutrition to fall back on as well. Luckily, I will be able to leave a drop bag at mile 15. Since I am only doing the 50K, I will only stock this drop bag with some food items I don't want weighing my down in the first half of the race. The rest is a combination of fitness and game plan. The fitness is there--I am more fit than I have ever been. Now, I just need to keep myself disciplined enough to keep a responsible pace, take walk breaks, and listen to my body. In these conditions, the worry is not to finish with a great time, it's to finish at all. I look forward to sharing all the gory details after the fact.