Monday, April 23, 2007

Mt. Si 50 mile

Despite the intimidating name, this is a very flat ultra, held on an easy (rails to trails) course and is thus very hippo-friendly. I had a fairly good day with no mishaps other than some moderate GI problems. I got to try out a few new things, including using Perpetuem (which works really well despite tasting like dishwater.) Despite the fact that I seem to have lost a lot of fitness over the past few months, I finished in 8:56 which is a scant 4 minutes off my PR - that's 5 seconds per mile.

But almost the entire story of my day was all the people, old and new friends, that I got to interact with. I'm still in a fantastic mood from all the smiles, hugs, and great conversations I had. That despite missing most of the night's sleep before the race (to drive there starting at 2:00 AM) and the night's sleep afterwards (because my bad knee was P.O.'ed and wouldn't give me peace.)

I ran most of the first 15 miles with Linda B. who I've known since running the Victoria Marathon with her before she became a Maniac and got on the marathon-a-week plan. This was her first fifty, but she has the soul of an ultrarunner and the talent as well. Soon I'll get to tell everyone that "I knew her before she became famous and faster than anybody else." We chattered away for hours about everything, particularly her recent Boston exploits. She had a fan and pacer to carry her through her last 22 miles so i felt privileged to be able to give her some company in the early going. I think our incessant bubbly chattering may have annoyed the other runners though.

Throughout the early miles we kept running across Stevie Ray, Arthur, and the Barb B / Janet combo. Barb was feeling all guilty that she'd borrowed ten bucks from me at the Yakima finish line and didn't have it on her to return. After hearing this guilt trip several times and really wanting more smiles from her instead, I decided to tell her to send the money to charity (from Stevie Ray's pink "breast cancer sucks" singlet) but by then we'd parted ways and I didn't get to pick on her.

I came into one of the middle aid stations only to run into Eric B. who jumped into the role of ultra crew catering to my every need and providing this huge emotional lift. He was there to support wife Michelle, but somehow managed to be all over the course playing guardian angel to almost all of us. I know that there are many of us who are eternally grateful and will remember how supportive and gracious he was for a long time.

Not long after I saw Michelle (and her friend Michelle) coming the other way while running the 50K. Their smiles and friendly greetings went into my "smile bank" along with all the others - I'm going to be on cloud nine for weeks! Both Michelles will now be Maniacs as this was their third outing in the last few weeks.

Near the turnaround I caught up to Diana (slug) and Stacy and rn with them for a few miles. Diana was one of the people who got me into the Maniacs, and I've never really had the chance to thank her so I took the opportunity. Of course, spending time with that pair is always like crawling into a basketful of puppies. I was sad to leave them but wasn't able to resist the usual temptation to push the pace in the last dozen miles.

The one thing in the race that made me a little uncomfortable was our interaction with the relay runners. There were teams of 5 runners who ran the race as a relay. Most of these people were accomplished athletes and many were undoubtedly better runners than I've ever been. Yet they all treated us ultrarunners as if we were gods descended from Mt. Olympus! I wasn't prepared for this and didn't know how to take it. I think of all fellow runners as part of "us" to be encouraged and appreciated so somehow being put on a pedestal without really deserving it left me wondering what to say. Does anyone have suggestions?

Unlike a lot of my races this year, this one left me feeling like I'll need a 1-2 day recovery. That means I should be able to get some training in before Miwok in two weeks. Scheduling a 50M and 100K two weeks apart now feels less daunting (more like slacking actually) but I'm still going to resist the temptation to squeeze a race in next weekend.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Peterson Ridge Rumble: yet another learning experience

I had thought this race would be one in which I really came into my own, it is the perfect terrain and distance for me. That clearly didn't happen, but I had a great day and learned a lot of lessons. Best of all I collected a lot of incredible smiles from the fantastic people who show up at ultras.

My wife and I decided to make a family mini-vacation out of this race. We stayed up on Mt. Hood on Friday night, had a fantastic dinner at Timberline Lodge, then spent the day skiing together at Mount Hood Meadows. It's been ages since we spent the day skiing together, just us. After skiing we drove down and stayed in Bend. Despite all my encouragement, Sweetie was completely uninterested in showing up at the race: she doesn't like running, or running people {shrugs sadly} so she dropped me off at Sisters Middle School at 7 AM and then went back to sleep in.

Upon arriving I was welcomed by all the usual hugs and smiles and hellos from everyone. Despite being new at this, I really feel like I know so many people already. It's hard not to love the whole lot of them to death. I spent a little while chatting with James Varner (who I'd not met before) and found what everyone had warned me about was true: James is an exceptionally warm and gracious person who stands out even among the ultra crowd.

As the race started I made my usual mistake of taking the first few miles too fast. This hurt me as much as it usually does (which is not at all) and gave me the benefit of getting to talk with a lot of people as they gradually passed me. But I learned my first lesson of many for the day as I realized that all of my working around injuries all winter has taken its toll: I simply don't have the fitness to run at quite the pace I could six months ago. This made me feel a little better about my post-Chuckanut decision to shift my schedule towards more knee-friendly races.

Somewhere in the early miles I developed a hot spot on one of the places I always tape for road marathons but don't feel the need to for trails. I made the wise decision to sit down at AS2 and get it taped. Unfortunately, the volunteers had to spend some time scurrying around looking for duct tape, but this was still probably a smart choice. I had some tape in my drop bag at AS3 but by then my foot would have probably been a mess.

I've never really used drop bags before, but having one at AS3 was really helpful, primarily as a place to strip off my headband, shirt, and sunglasses. This was the start of the "grunt loop" with a little bit of technical trail. My plan was to take this section relatively easy, pushing the uphills and really saving myself on the downs, even if I had to walk them. I've been discovering that running downs hard early in the race really slows my time as all the muscles above and below my knee tighten up in an attempt to protect it and turn the rest of the race into a shuffle. This strategy worked very well for me: no real knee problems later in the race and no apparent need for knee rehab-recovery the day after the race.

There is a long steep escarpment to climb at the end of the "grunt loop" and here I got my final lesson of the day in "what to do right." I passed Van, who was having a horrific asthma attack. I really hate it when I pass her, as I'm not in her league and if I do pass her it's only because she is having a really bad day. As we pulled back into AS3 though, she reminded me that I should use my inhaler so that I wouldn't have the same problem. We stood around for a few seconds doing group inhaler-puffing and I was saved from having any problems later in the race. Thanks Van!

My luck changed there somewhere after AS3B: all my lessons up to then were in "what to do right." Afterwards it was nothing other than "what not to do."

Heading down to Aid Station 4 was one of those emotional highs I always remember, though this time it would eventually lead to my undoing. I was rested from my easy pace in the grunt loop, the terrain was easily runnable and gently downhill, and my legs had loosened up into that fast-ultra pace that I can sometimes sustain forever. I started to pass a number of other runners, all except for Michele, who passed me about six times. She was having a difficult day or I would have never seen her at all, but since she always has a great smile and friendly comments I was happy to see her so many times. If I needed any other motivation to become a better ultra runner it would be to be able to run with her on a good day for her.

So as I came into AS5 I was pretty full of myself. I was fresh and running well, with all the tough terrain behind me and only hippo-friendly trail in front. I'd been eating and drinking well, and always had lots of drink left in my bottles at every Aid Station. What could go wrong?

So I made my big mistake and didn't top off my bottles at AS5. Less than a mile later the course came out into full sunshine and its longest interval without aid. I realized early that I was in trouble, and started to conserve water but still ran out with miles to go. What followed was a nightmare of running without hydration, baking in the sunshine and being forced to slow down which only prolonged the time I had to endure. The last several miles of this stretch is a gentle upgrade on a dirt road: normally this would be where I would gain ground on everyone, but I was forced to walk most of it in hopes that I could make AS6 without making too much of a mess of myself. My only consolation was seeing Michele up ahead not pulling ahead very much. I know she's a better runner (at least most days) so it was good to be reminded that I wasn't falling back that badly.

Somehow I made it to AS6 and spent a little while there drinking and getting bottles filled. Sadly, the damage had been done though and the rest of the race was an uncoordinated stumble over what should have been easy trail. I wasn't going all that slowly, but easy miles after mile 30 is usually where I make up ground.

I really enjoyed the end of the race, which is a lap around the school track. Since almost the entire field had finished in front of me, it they were all there eating great food and Sascha's (Sean's dog) birthday cake. It made my day to hear so many people call me by name as I stepped onto the track - my first ultra was last July yet it seems like I have so many friends!

The best news about this race is that I had an easy recovery and will be 100% for the Mt Si 50 miler on Sunday. This reinforces my decision to be a slacker-backofthepacker at Miwok and then retreat to a bunch of relaxing road marathons until July. I must be one of the few people in ultras who thinks that 2-3 road marathons a month is the best way to rest up and get healthy. All the real ultrarunners think I'm crazy for this attitude.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Yakima River Canyon

I had a rough couple of weeks after Chuckanut both physically and emotionally. My recovery went about as poorly as possible, and I started to worry that some of the damage I took to my wonky knee might be permanent. Being down about that affected my eating habits, and so I gained a little weight. I started to realize that technical trail races may be something I'm not cut out for. Protecting the knee makes me slow, and I get beat up way too much which interrupts my progression as a runner.

All this introspection about my future as a runner was compounded by the uncertainty about my "retirement." I'd become emotionally comitted to leaving my employer after all these decades, but until they confirmed my application (which wasn't certain) I wasn't sure I'd get that huge financial assistance in my career change.

I'd told myself that life is like ultras: you sometimes just have to stick out the low spots and wait for them to end. But I was almost unable to believe this until Friday when things turned around.

First I got officially notified that I was accepted. Woot! I'm still employed until the end of May but I'm committed now (and so are they.) Then I just started to fall into my normal prerace joyfulness as I started to head towards Yakima.

I don't know how to put into words how much I get from hanging out with Maniacs and ultra people. They are the best, like the perfect family you hear about in fairy tales that don't really exist. I was overwhelmed by all the friends I got to hang out with, and I knew even before the race that all my glumness was a thing of the past.

The race weather was nearly perfect. I haven't ever done this marathon before so I really got to appreciate the views of desert canyon and the river. Fortunately, Lesa had warned me in advance about the crown of the roads so I was mentally prepared and it didn't seem to bother me that much.

There's been a pattern in my last few ultras that I have low spots in the mid-teens. For the first time that spilled over into a road marathon for me as I lost focus a bit for miles 13-17. But just like an ultra I came out the other side with an exhilarating feeling of being ready to tackle the late miles. This made me really look forward to the last long hill as a place to gain some ground.

Unfortunately, I was a bit too cocky in that plan, as the hill brought on a scary asthma attack, and then I started to cramp pretty badly near the crest. A year ago that would have been the end and I would have death-marched the last four miles. All the stuff I've been learning from ultras really helped here. I simply knew that I would shake this off, and some of the tricks to how to go about it.

Sure enough, I recovered pace quickly and finished in 3:44. That's not an excellent time for me, but plenty good to send me home happy. More importantly it left me with a 1 day recovery and a lot more faith in my ability to face the next few races in my schedule.

I think the finish area meant more to me than the race did. So many friends had good days and amazing smiles. I infected one non-Maniac runner named Bonny with both my hobby of trying to get smiles from other marathoners as well as the Maniac Virus. It looks like she'll be joining in a few weeks.

I don't have enough time to recount all the friends (and new friends) I talked to and how much their spirit flowed into me. Suffice it to say that my schedule of a 60K, 80K, and 100K in the next 5 weeks now seems immensely less daunting.