Sunday, October 17, 2010

Oil Creek End-of-Racing-Season Report

Before I get into the details of my latest DNF-semi-debacle, I'd like to thank everybody for their support after the Grindstone fiasco. If it weren't for you, I may not have made it to the Oil Creek starting line. But, after a week of consideration, I decided that since I could still run, and since so many factors at Grindstone were confounded that it was hard to tell if burnout was truly the culprit, or if some other factor was the key, it would be worth it to try Oil Creek (since I had already signed up months ago, and the website clearly states that there are no refunds), and see if a little bit of rest and learning from mistakes would change the outcome.

The short answer is, a little bit. The long answer is . . .

The race started at 5 a.m. on Saturday, which was good, because it meant more sleep before the race (albeit on a gym floor), so already, one thing improved over Grindstone. I was wearing my new Black Diamond Icon headlamp, which is much brighter than what I had been using at Grindstone, and I had my water bottles in a belt, which turned out to help immensely. Still, as we took off from the starting line, things just didn't feel right. I led the race for the first three miles, which were on a paved bike path, mainly because it was pavement, and I knew that as soon as we hit the trails, I would slow down. Sure enough, as we turned off the bike path, within minutes, people began to pass me. This made me wonder if the marathon record wouldn't already be under two hours if we took a bunch of average runners who are trail-running obsessives and just let them loose on 26.2 miles of hilly, technical trails. Still, as I perservered in the dark over rocks and roots, I felt as though I was technically running much better than usual, although I was starting to feel pain in my chest, particularly when I took a deep breath. I found myself at the first aid station, about 7 miles later, amidst Christmas lights, not really sure what to make of all of this.

The section from the first aid station to the second aid station (at about 6 miles, the shortest distance between aid stations on the course) began with a steep climb, followed by a steep descent. I knew that it was going to be a long day when I began to climb and I felt like I had no power in my legs. Normally, I am a very strong climber, but not today. The pain in my chest was still nagging, and I felt like I was working harder than I should have been. As a result, I slowed on the downhill, which is always a mistake, because going slow downhill generally hurts more than going fast. Of course, more people passed me. I made it to the second aid station still running, but not comfortably.

The stretch from the second aid station to the third aid station, at nearly 10 miles, was the longest in the race, although it didn't feel like it, at least at that point, because there was plenty of variety in the trail. For the first time, there were some extended flat stretches where I could open up my stride. I ran when I could, but I couldn't run for more than about 10 minutes straight without feeling weak - not sore, just weak in the legs. Yes, more people passed me, but eventually, I made it to the third aid station.

From the third aid station to the fourth aid station (the start/finish area), the terrain was the most gentle and runnable, in part due to the fact that two miles of the 8-ish mile section consisted of flat, grassy area, and the bike path. At this point, I was running more than I was walking, albeit grudgingly. I couldn't shake the weak feeling, and by this time, the fact that the pain in my chest wasn't going away was very disturbing.

I should mention, at this point, that I have a number of chronic and semi-chronic physical problems, all of which have been previously diagnosed, which could mimic symptoms of a heart attack, including acid reflux, gas, muscle strains in the chest and back, inconveniently on the left side only, mild asthma, a heart murmur, and probably some others that I can't think of off the top of my head right now. To add to all of this, the hours that I spend in the car driving position me in such a way that my left hand and arm are subject to near-constant strain, and, my father nearly had a heart attack at a relatively young age (i.e. before 50), although granted, he was not very physically fit at the time. With all that constantly in the background, and the public spectre of apparently fit people such as Ryan Shay and Alberto Salazar dropping dead, and nearly dropping dead, respectively, due to undiagnosed heart conditions, I confess that I experience a constant, low-level fear that one day, I too will drop dead in the middle of a run. Most of the time, I am comfortably resigned to this fate, but on occasion, when one or more of the aforementioned conditions are particularly severe or persistent, I become irrationally afraid of sudden death. So, 50 kilometers into the race, when I was still experiencing discomfort in the chest, it was becoming increasingly difficult to convince myself that it was not something serious.

Nevertheless, two more loops remained, and I was determined to force my way through as much more of the race as I could stand. So, after a fairly conservative 7-hour first loop, I set out for the second loop, feeling much, much worse than I had on the first loop. There's not much more to say about the course at this point, but I will mention that along the way, only pizza, supplemented with Hammer Gels, seemed to be effective nutrition, and for most of the loop, I struggled to walk slowly, although at one point between the second and the third aid station, I ran at about 10-minute mile pace for about twenty minutes straight, and thought that I might have caught my second wind. This was short lived, as I resumed my shuffle-sit-on-a-log-shuffle pace for the remainder of the loop. As the sound of who-knows-what from the Drake Wells museum (which shall henceforth be known as "the heartbeat of the forest") grew louder as I neared the end of the loop, forward progress seemed more and more painful, especially when being on a flat section of the course didn't make things any easier. After what felt like forever (but was, in fact, about 40 minutes), I completed the last two miles of the loop, putting me back at the starting line in about 8.5 hours. This was somewhat encouraging, in that I felt like the amount of slowing and stopping that happened on this loop should have added more than an hour and a half to my first loop split.

But now, I was back at the start/finish area, which, as the course description is quick to warn, makes it very tempting to drop out. I sat around for a while in the relative warmth of the cafeteria, eating beef barley soup and contemplating why on earth about all of this in the first place. People came over to try to help me, and, had I been in a better physical state, this would have worked. But as I sat there, my body felt wrecked, and my feet were throbbing. This was not the usual blinding muscle pain - this was total weakness and fatigue, and not even sitting seemed to help. After about half an hour of contemplation, I went to the gym, and called Sara, and told her that I was feeling like I was ready to quit. Finally, some encouragement - I can't remember exactly what she said, but it was matter-of-fact enough that it gave me enough energy to put down the phone, put on another layer of clothes, and get back out there to start the third lap.

I wish I could say that that was enough to make me finish. It wasn't. Less than a mile into the lap, the chest pain, which, in the hour or so that I had been off the course had dissipated, was back with a vengance, and the extra layer of clothing was unnecessary, even at my average walking pace in 30-degree weather - I was sweating profusely. Again, thoughts of a sudden heart attack and dying alone in the woods became very difficult to suppress. And of course, I wasn't walking much better than before. I got about a third of the way to the first aid station and felt totally finished. Fortunately, another runner, who was deliberately walking this section of the course so that he wouldn't arrive at the second aid station before his son, who would be pacing him, showed up, was willing to walk with me to the first aid station. When we made it there, I sat down, took off my shoes for the medical staff, and they took one look at my mushy, swollen feet and decided that that was enough for me. In retrospect, perhaps I could have protested, and continued, but the thought of my body protesting against me any longer was unbearable, and with no familiar face or voice to urge me on, and the pain in my chest refusing to yield, I gave up the ghost, and eventually, after some time in front of the fire with the medics and rescue dogs, rode back to the starting line in a golf cart, some 68 miles into the race. Somewhere in there, they put a cold stethoscope under my shirt, and discovered that I had fluid in my lungs - yet another contributer to the ever-present chest pain, and most likely the hold-over effects from a low-level cold I'd been fighting since the Monday before Grindstone.

I slept in the gym for about five hours, then woke up and watched other runners hobble in from their third loop, with a slight amount of regret that I hadn't persisted, which was quickly eclipsed by the throbbing pain in my feet. And that, plus or minus a few slices of Little Caesar's pizza, was my race.

So, in summary, what on earth did all of that accomplish? Well, for one thing, it demonstrated that at this point, I'm just plain burned out. After 3 100+ mile races this summer (Western States, Badwater, and Beast of Burden), the most I've ever done in that timeframe, my body is worn out. As much as I wanted to finish Oil Creek, the thought of a 31+ mile, 31+ total hour deathmarch to the finish line seemed like far too much after all I had done, and was clearly violating the first goal that I had coming into this race - to have fun.

At the same time, ironically enough, racing for 18-ish hours, when I felt okay for only about 40 minutes, was enough to re-light my fire for running. The parts of the race when I felt good - running on the bike path in the first three miles, and the random trail section of the third section of the second lap when I finally fell into a rhythm - stand out in my mind in stark contrast to the misery of the rest of the race. These parts of the race convinced me that somewhere underneath all of the accumulated fatigue from the stress of a life that never seems to quit, the part of me that loves running with something approaching a dying passion is still alive and well. While I would have liked to have the belt buckle as tangible evidence of this experience, these are memories that will fuel my next racing season. That, and the term "exposure," which will also be on my mind for a long time, for reasons that I won't get into just yet . . .

So congratulations to all who finished Oil Creek - it may not be the steepiest, but it sure is the creepiest 100 I've ever attempted, and it's a heck of an experience. Stay tuned for my next post, where I look back on the past year a little, and look forward to the next year a lot.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

2010 Grindstone 100 - Failure Report

Because people are going to ask, and because I'd rather not repeat the story dozens of times (it's far too complicated for that), and because I have an awful lot of thoughts to organize, here's the story of my spectacular failure at the 2010 Grindstone 100. If you pay attention, you might also learn something about the course and effective race strategy, should you be interested in attempting this race in the future.

First, a little background: There were four key factors that, prior to the race, doomed this effort to failure. First, mentally and emotionally, I came in drained, due to circumstances in my work, school, and personal life that are beyond the scope of this post. Second, I decided not to buy a lower-back pack for my water bottles - I thought that it might have helped, but in the past, I've carried two bottles in my hands in similar races, and survived, so I thought that it might have smacked of "trying too hard." Third, I decided not to buy a brighter headlamp, for the same reason why I didn't buy the pack for my water bottles. Fourth, I decided to forego sleep the night before the race, reasoning that it would be better to nap in the afternoon for a few hours, and then wake up about an hour before the race.

With that out of the way, I was excited for Grindstone. Although my last two races had been failures (The Ring, because I got lost and wandered 15 miles off-course, and the North Coast 24, where my arches fell, and the pain became too much to bear), I was confident that (except for the four things that I mentioned above) I had addressed all of the issues that stood in my way of a strong performance. Unfortunately, my plan began to unravel before the race even began. My attempt to sleep prior to the race was a failure - I was too excited to sleep, and wound up tossing and turning, getting maybe 15 minutes of sleep, and starting the race sleep-deprived. As I chatted with friends prior to the race (it seemed as though EVERYBODY I was even remotely friends with was doing this race, only adding to the excitement), I could tell that my mind was hazy, and the thoughts weren't forming clearly. This was a bad sign.

We took off from Camp Shenandoah after a prayer from David Horton, and a group performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner," and for the first mile, I felt fairly good. My legs felt strong, my breathing felt steady, and in spite of my sleep-deprived state, I thought that maybe my physical strength would carry me through. Then, somewhere in the second mile, the first mini-disaster struck. I was "leaning forward and letting go" on a downhill, as I've discovered is the most efficient way to take these, and I caught my foot on a rock (the first of many) and fell, twisting my ankle and knee. I clumsily struggled to my feet, to find that although the injury was not serious, it was bad enough that I had to walk about 50 feet before things fell back into place, and the pain subsided enough to run again. But the psychological damage was already done - as if I hadn't had a drought of confidence enough from the results of my previous two races, I now could not be confident that I was mentally together enough to attack the downhills.

This fear was substantiated when I ran off course at the first opportunity, having to backtrack up a hill to the turn that I missed. I had only wandered about a quarter-mile away, but it was enough for a number of people to catch up with and pass me (another mental blow). Still, it was early in the race, and there would be time to make it up later, so I continued to push on the downhills, looking out as best I could for the random stray rocks on the otherwise clear path that could spell my doom, and power-walking the steep uphills. For a while, I thought things might come back together.

Then it got dark.

I turned on my headlamp and my flashlight, to find that, in this environment, while my flashlight was passable, my headlamp was useless. I would have to rely on my flashlight, which, as I mentioned, I have in many other races, but now, the flashlight had a nasty tendency to shut off when jolted hard (as is the intermittent case when running over rocky, uneven terrain). Further, the flashlight was strapped to my water bottle. Again, nothing new, but in my foggy, sleep-deprived state (which only worsened as the night wore on), the moving light spot in front of me, further confounded by the water bottles flitting in and out of my peripheral vision as I ran, all complicated by the seemingly random occurence of rocky, technical sections, would pose a challenge that would exceed what little mental and emotional energy I came into the race with.

My last "good" section of the race was the climb up the gravel slope to Elliot Knob. I power-walked to the top, putting distance on the people behind me, and gaining on the people in front of me. It was just a little bit brilliant to stand at the top of the dark, desolate, wind-swept summit, putting my foot up on a chain-link fence so that I could "punch" my bib to prove that I had been there. But of course, on the descent, I was cautious, since I hadn't seen the turn-off on the ascent, and in spite of my caution (which always hurts on a downhill), I still missed the turn, and wound up walking back up about a quarter-mile with another runner, who, fortunately for me, but unfortunately for her, had also missed the turn (otherwise, I might have gone much further down before I decided that I had missed the turn). As it turned out, her temporary companionship would end up being one of the first nails in the coffin, since what little confidence I had at that point was shattered when it became obvious that she was picking her way through the flat, rocky section of trail much better than I was, and I had to let her pass . . . and then another runner, and then another, and then another . . .

I made it to the second aid station, and leaving the aid station, the climb was fairly non-rocky, and I still had some legs, but now the mental strain of the circumstances was becoming overwhelming. It was getting colder (probably in the low 40s), and my feet were wet from earlier stream crossings, and the combination of all of this made a normally climbable hill a nearly impossible obstacle. It was at this point that I began periodically stopping by the side of the trail, questioning why I was even here in the first place. Runners passed, asking if I needed help, and I wished that there was anything they could do to help me, but at this point, what could I ask for? Warmer clothes? Dry shoes? A brighter headlamp? Something to put my water bottles in so that I wasn't so off-balance on the precipitous descents? The truth is, while any one of these things might have helped, I doubt that having one, or two, or even all of these things at this point would have been enough to turn this race around. The 15ish dark, miserable miles that I had struggled through had drained what little I had mentally and emotionally, and short of a friendly face, or a good night's sleep, having even the slightest material improvement would not have made a difference.

With all that thrown together, the half-track downhill (yes, the course might claim to have single-track trail, but, in truth, most of this trail is barely wider than a person's foot, especially when you have feet as grotesquely wide as mine) broke me. I could barely see where I was going, I had no confidence in my ability to descend without tripping and falling, and EVERYBODY was passing me. Regis and Mosi had passed me a long time ago, but when Snipes passed me, and I couldn't keep up, I knew that I was done. I tried my best, but already not being able to see, and then being on a trail crowded with people who were clearly navigating the terrain much better than I was, was too much. I couldn't plan my next step without feeling a vague sense of panic, and I couldn't break into a run without feeling a wave of entire-body discomfort that made a convincing argument that there was no way on earth that I could run more than a few feet, even though aside from my sore ankle and knee, I was perfectly nourished and hydrated, and not the least bit sore. The little bits of the course that I did attempt to run were short, because I was nearly tripping every 50 feet or so over even the smallest rocks on the trail. And on and on it went, this failure spiral, or whatever you want to call it, until I was reduced to an idiot in shorts and a t-shirt in the woods, on a remote trail in the middle of nowhere, wearing a "5" on my shorts that I clearly was not going to live up to, wanting nothing more than decent food, warmth, and shelter.

From the second aid station to the third aid station, I spent nearly 3 hours, from about 9 p.m. to midnight, struggling, shivering, and wondering when on earth I would reach the third aid station, and first crew access point, so I could drop out and go home. After what felt like an eternity, especially since a substantial section of the course was "flat, but leaf-covered, with random rocks that you will no doubt twist an ankle on" that was especially demoralizing to walk, when, given my physical condition alone, I should have been able to run, I finally struggled up a short, slippery dirt hill to the aid station, one hour before the cut-off time, and somewhere in the vicinity of tenth-to-last. My crew of one wasn't here (a work emergency, coupled with bad D.C. traffic, prevented him from getting to the area until around 1 a.m.), but fortunately, another runner was dropping, and a woman who was going back to the start kindly volunteered to drive us back. As I walked the quarter-mile to her car, shivering violently, all I could think about was getting into a heated car, covering myself with a blanket, and sleeping. Which I did, for a short time, until we reached the camp, and I was thrust out into the cold again. I struggled to collect my things and drive my car to a place where I had cell service, so I could call and tell people that I wasn't dead, just temporarily defeated, and that I would return in near-perfect physical condition. My crew finally showed up, and I thanked him for his effort, apologized for my poor effort, and he left to take some pictures of the night sky. At this point, any more driving seemed unbearable, so I slept in the back seat of my car, wrapped in a sleeping bag, parked in front of a CVS and Big Lots. The parking lot was well-lit. I was exhausted. It didn't matter.

I woke up around 7:30, after having slept soundly, feeling less bad (but still too awful to think about being on the course), and felt very little regret about dropping. I had no idea what to do with myself, and briefly entertained the option of going out on the course, but everybody looked fantastic when they were passing me, so I doubted that anybody needed my help (although, in spite of any supporting evidence, it would be reasonable to assume that at least some of these people were now not doing so well), and even if they did, I didn't feel as though I was "together" enough to help them. So I drove home, and now I'm here, and that's my life story.

The moral of this is, Horton courses -2, David - 0. In case anybody was wondering what it takes to finish one of his races, you need to be physically and mentally at the top of your game, because the courses are designed to tax you by switching things up constantly. The downhills are steep and not very rocky, except for the few rocks that are right in your way at the most inopportune times. The uphills aren't very rocky, but are so steep that walking is a challenge. The flats are as rocky as possible, to make running them as difficult as possible. All of this is varied to the maximum possible extent, so that when you are in a good place physically and mentally, and up for the challenge, completing the course is very satisfying. When you're in a bad place, the variation is unbearable, since there's no way to get into a mindless rhythm, and sooner or later, you're ruined. My sincere congratulations to everybody who finished Grindstone (which, as far as I could tell when I quit, 22 miles into the race, was EVERYBODY, except of course the guy that dropped when I did).

All that said, I'm not sure what I'll do about Oil Creek. Physically, I can get my body and my gear together to do it two weeks from now. Mentally and emotionally - only time will tell. Life is improving, but who knows if I'll feel as though I have enough energy to take on another 100-mile race two weeks from now. In the meantime, though, I plan to do everything I can to get my running and my life back together in the next two weeks, while enjoying both as much as possible (and really, the latter implies the former). Maybe not at Oil Creek, but at some point, I am determined to be on top again.