Friday, September 23, 2011

The Best Run I Never Did


All activites detailed in the following blog post are, as far as you know, and as far as any physical evidence that you have access to suggests, entirely fictional. Any cuts, bruises, scrapes, or torn clothing of anybody's bearing a striking resemblance to anything described in this blog post are, to the extent that you can prove, entirely coincidental.


Before I begin this little story, I'd like to briefly explain (but not justify) why on earth I would do something so downright stupid. Let's chalk it up to things being "weird" lately, being unsure of what to do with myself, part of me not really wanting to go home, part of me looking for a challenge as a distraction, part of me wanting to accomodate others at my own expense, and a whole lot of "let's worry about that later." And there might be some other stuff. But for the moment, that's not really the point, and in any case, what may have happened may have happened, and its only use now is as a teaching point going forward. With that . . .

A week ago today, I left my car parked at the Park and Ride at the I-95/I-495 intersection, en route to North Coast via carpool. I had originally planned to long-term park at Greenbelt, only to find that all of those spots were taken. So, in the interest of not holding up the trip, I drove to the next available place for leaving a car, parked in what may have been a somewhat questionable manner, and continued on my merry way to my race, and then Israel, all the while, in the back of my mind, I couldn't help thinking occasionally that I wasn't sure how I was going to get BACK to the car.

You see, it turns out that there is no service (other than private taxi, maybe) to that Park and Ride. And nobody was going to be around to pick me up and take me there. So, I decided to walk. From above, on Google Maps, the route seemed walkable. I arrived at the College Park Metro Station at around 1100, after a 12-hour flight, a 2.5 hour layover, and another hour flight.

Not to spoil the surprise too much, but to illustrate what happened, here was my actual route (sorry, HTML, like most basic features on Blogger, is "borken"; you have to copy and paste):

The squiggle on the screen is pretty much meaningless, especially without the topographic view, so allow me to explain what happened. But first, let me mention that I was carrying all of my stuff from the trip (about 40 pounds of whatever), some in a backpack (about 10 pounds), but most (about 30 pounds) in an awkward shoulder-slung duffle bag, thereby increasing the baseline agony by about 30%.

The first thing I did, predictably, was to go the wrong way from the metro station. At this point, it wasn't raining very hard, so the consequences, other than the time it took to walk a little over a mile all the way down to the anything-but Good Luck Road before I realized my mistake, were minimal. Of course, right around the time that I realized what I did wrong, the rain started coming down harder. I took cover under a bus shelter, hoping that it would pass. Half an hour later, it did not. I decided that I was going to have to move, and move quickly, if I was ever going to get back to my car. I put as much stuff as I could inside as many plastic bags as I had at my disposal, and, when the rain let up slightly, I made sort of a break for it, as fast as one can break with that much extra weight.

Keep in mind, that if you're in the rain long enough, there is no such thing as a "light rain." It's either raining or it's not. Eventually, you get soaked all the way through. This eventually happened somewhere between the Metro Station, where I started, and the University of Maryland College Park campus. This was about when the rain temporarily stopped, although not long enough for any of the standing water to dry, so I was getting sprayed by passing vehicles about every five minutes or so, ensuring that my clothes (a button-down plaid shirt, and "destroyed" skinny jeans - this will become relevant in a bit) never got any dryer.

In retrospect, the walk through the UMD campus was the best part of this misguided journey. Although at this point, a little over halfway through the trek distance-wise, I was getting tired, and shifting the duffle bag from shoulder to shoulder more frequently, the terrain (other than the blasted climbs from one side of campus to the other) was pavement or concrete, a luxury that would soon pass . . .

. . . when I reached the first questionable part of this route. On the map, it appeared that there was a road cutting behind one of the agricultural buildings. In reality, there was . . . behind a fence that separates UMD's agricultrual utopia from the rest of crappy old regular nature. Seeing as to how I was right near the entrance, and getting caught here would cause far greater problems, I instead chose to bushwhack along the fence into a neighborhood bordering ag-world. There was a semblance of a trail that somebody may have once used for this purpose, but it was long-since overgrown, and there were plenty of opportunities to cross mini-streams and get thorns in my sandal-shod, ill-protected feet (and, for good measure, one branch-poke in my right eye that dislodged my contact lens). I snuck around the side of somebody's house (I don't think they were home anyway), then dashed through the yard into the public street before anybody but the mailman across the street (who, like everybody else in the world, clearly didn't care that I was walking along soaking wet with huge heavy bags) was the wiser.

Now it looked like smooth sailing - up the road in the neighborhood, cut through the wooded area behind these houses, Park and Ride, profit. Except that as I began to climb yet another stupid hill, the realization that this wooded area was probably part of ag-world hit me. Which meant more fences, probably. As I cut down to the pool (also marked off-limits, but guarded only by a gate to stop vehicular traffic), the fences came into view, and I just about cried and gave up hope. I dropped my bags on the front step of the pool house and sat for about fifteen minutes, being wet and sad and thinking about admitting defeat. As if the universe knew it had me on the ropes, it started raining even harder. Then I decided that I had come too far, and victory was so close on the map, that I needed to at least try to find a way through. I left my bags and scouted the area. To the right of the pool house was a lower section of fence, thanks to the buildup of sand and other silt-like material in front of it. Conveniently, the barbed wire on the top was down.

I thought a few times before I did this. I double and triple-checked the map. I lowered my backpack to the other side of the fence, hesitated, brought it back over to the legal side, and did a test-climb of the fence. I knew that once I dropped my bag on the other side, there would be no going back, and I had no idea what was coming next. But knowing that I could climb over the fence gave me at least some confidence that I might really be able to get back if I needed to.

I dropped my bags over the side, then my sandals, and then I straddled the fence. Mistake. While I was busy being preoccupied with the downed barbed wire, my pants caught in the barbs on the top of the fence. Perhaps I could have been more graceful about this, but as this was a major turning point, and nothing was going to stop me from gaining the other side of the fence, I pushed over, and ripped through my jeans and my boxers, about three inches down from the crotch along the inseam. There may be a few other catches in the seat of the jeans, too. Good thing they were "destroyed" to begin with - now I can wear them a bit more legitimately.

Smelling victory at last, I crested a small berm, and slid down the other side, cursing the awkward bags as I struggled to stay upright. Back on a road - hooray! A gravel road, of course, but one that was on the map, with recognizable landmarks on either side. I could even see where I was going to cut across . . .

And just to taunt me a bit more, I cut across right in front of the bee keeping zone of ag-world. Yes, somehow, even though it was raining, a bee stung my foot. Hooray. I pressed on towards - yep, you guessed it, another fence. This one was taller, and I was going to have to toss my bags over. Except not really, because, having learned that pretty much anything will stick on the barbs at the top of one of those fences, I just lifted them up and over, let them hang, and then rolled over the "safe" zone that I created with the bags, thereby not ripping my jeans any further. I had to damage the fence a bit to get my bags down, since I wasn't tall enough to lift the duffle bag high enough to get it off of the barb. So now one of them is bent down. And, for good measure, I decided to relieve myself on that fence, since I thought it would be the last one.

But wait - one more. The seemingly easy road from the area where all of the road construction equipment was hanging out to the Park-and-Ride was gated, and the gate was shut. Fortunately, this was a padlock on a chain, chained loosely enough that I could slide my bags through the opening, then climb up and over the chain myself (of course, not without the requisite cuts and scratches on the hands that come from this). Miraculously, my car was still there, albeit with a warning and a ticket on it for (allegedly) parking outside of a designated space. That's all for later, though - for now, my prize was braving 3:20 p.m. DC-area traffic in pouring rain (that means two hours to go 30 miles . . .)

So, to recap, that was an incredibly stupid 6+ mile venture that left me muddy, bruised, scratched, and stuck with thorns that I'm still picking out of my feet with tweezers. And probably it would have made a lot more sense to cab, or call a friend desperately for help. But then again, there are some situations in which you get in too far, and there's no turning back, and you're the only person you can rely on to pull yourself through. And really, in a situation that's this stupid, where you're the only one at fault, you really shouldn't drag anybody else into it. (Which in this case created this bizarre side effect of being, at a glance, part of civilized society, and yet actually drifting through the world as some sort of ghost, everybody looking right through you, having absolutely no idea what kind of trouble you're in. Although, in a less immediate way, that's not all that strange.) This was one of those situations. And while the overarching lesson is to keep yourself out of this kind of trouble in the first place, the secondary lesson here is that if you do find yourself in too deep, you've got to find a way to slog through that mud, and climb those fences, because sometimes, you're the only person that can (or should be expected to) help you. (Plus, in a strange way, that was all kinda fun . . . emphasis on "kinda" . . .)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

2011 North Coast 24-Hour "National Championships" Race Report

Okay, I ran some miles this week, but that can definitely wait, because right now, this race report is way, way more interesting and important.

Before I start, though, I'd like to make a few things clear. Although what I write here may (no, probably will) be construed as insulting to the city of Cleveland and its residents, I am in no way blaming the city for my disappointing performance. Rather, dry/irritated sinuses (as it eventually turned out; fortunately, not a cold or infection) made it difficult for me to run without generating tons of mucous, which found its way into my lungs and sent me into uncontrollable coughing fits of increasing frequency as the race progressed. If anything, this was a result of pacing on the dry, dusty Wasatch course last week (as I type this, my lips are still sort of chapped from that). Fortunately, by this time tomorrow, I'll be in humid, 85-degree weather in Israel, and that should go a long way towards clearing this up. Ultimately, it's my responsibility to take care of myself, and I did a poor job with this (although I did a remarkably good job with everything else, which perhaps made this worse by comparison), and I suffered as a result. (But make no mistake - I laughed harder and longer at this race than I did at any other race that I've ever run, which is why I will be first in line when registration for this opens next year.)

With the bottom line out of the way, begin humorous rant:

If you're one of the three people who hasn't seen these videos, or if you'd like a refresher, here:

and, here:

So you know what they say about a lot of truth being said in jest . . .

Well, Mark Rodriguez, Jackie Ong, and I saddled up this past Friday for another road trip, all having seen the videos, but of course thinking that this was no doubt exaggeration. The trip was totally uneventful until about here:

Don't worry if you miss this one - there's one about every 50 feet along I-71, which proves that Cleveland has no idea exactly where their corporate limits are.

After a totally safe, homogenized lunch experience at the Olive Garden, we headed to our rooms at the Days Inn on Lake, just outside of Edgewater, the "host hotel" of this "national championship" event. We should have been a little bit more prepared when everything along 130th and 117th looked exactly like the stuff in the parody "tourism" videos, but apparently, we're slow learners. For the moment, I'll let this picture speak for itself:

Why aren't there bars on this window? (Maybe the front desk has them on request.)

The "non-smoking" room smelled like a seedy bar (i.e. cigarette smoke and cheap perfume, more the former than the latter), there were bits of pizza and fried chicken all over the chairs and carpet, the sheets were stained . . .

Zero points to the first person who can guess what caused this stain, because if you know, you are no doubt familiar and/or complicit with horrible, horrible things . . .

But fortunately, we're good sports, so we couldn't stop laughing. One of the hotel employees overheard us, and when we told him that the room smelled like somebody had been smoking in there as recently as ten minutes ago, he responded "yeah, everybody does that." Okay, Cleveland, stop and think about that for a second - is that not your property, that you charge people money to stay in? Don't you have any concept of pride, or ownership, or pride in ownership? You can't just ENFORCE YOUR NON-SMOKING RULES? Okay, maybe to their credit, somebody did come in with a spray to try to clean things up . . .

Other hotel employee: "Isn't that the spray that they use when they evacuate buildings?"
Spraying employee: "Yeah, and it works great!"

Not long after (now that the window was open), we heard yelling outside the window, and saw a bunch of cop cars. Most of the shouting was unintelligible, but the clearly audible "this is bullshit!" would become our rallying cry for the weekend. We made the best of the situation by blasting gangster rap and gunshot sound effects from YouTube out the window, in an attempt to appear "hard."

The "official" pre-race dinner of the "national championships" was at a place called "Players on Madison," which I won't dignify with a link here. Go ahead and Google it if you like, but all I will say is that any place that calls itself "Players" and doesn't have gambling or strippers involved is clearly mis-named. We opted for the Pizza Hut instead, which was right next to this lovely establishment:

Racism, alive and well in Clevelandtown.

Then it was back to our hotel room, which still smelled terrible, and was now really cold on account of having the window open, to sleep on our dirty sheets and pray that we didn't wind up with bedbugs.

Oh, right, a race happened eventually. We went to the breakfast lounge, where there were no spoons for the cereal, and where somebody comically asked "is that real orange juice," as if he could expect to drink anything in this city that wasn't tainted with antifreeze. Then off to the race, where, in an attempt to play upon patriotism to band everybody together in spite of the poor conditions, we listened to somebody sing the National Anthem, then had about two minutes of pre-race meeting before the blasted event began.

There was a veritable "who's who" of ultrarunning at this event: Zach Gingerich, Jamie Donaldson, Phil McCarthy, Byron Lane, Connie Gardner, Anna Piskorska, Serge Arbona, Nick Coury, just to name a few. Suckers, all of them; all of us, really. At this point, there's not much to write about running around in a circle about a million times, except that the leaders went out way, way, WAY too fast (50 miles in the first six hours is ridiculous, sorry, guys), and there was a brief period where there were some overweight nuns flying kites in the park (god, how I wish I had my camera for that, but they were gone by the next lap).


For my part, I went out pretty conservatively, and everybody commented on how good I looked, and I kept saying (the best I could, considering that I could barely talk through these sinus problems) that as long as this stayed out of my lungs, I would be fine.

And it did, somewhat, for about 8 hours and a little over 50 miles, and then things just became unbearable. I tried to sit down and change shoes and eat food and all that, but the fact was, mucous was draining into my lungs, and I was coughing hard, and my chest hurt, and without knowing for sure that it wasn't something more serious, I was hesitant to push through this, even though I felt pretty much okay otherwise. Besides, they had gotten about ten Hammer Gels for this first-class "national championship" event, and by three hours in, the only gels left were the ones loaded with caffiene, so I had no steady nutrition source at this point, making forward progress even more risky.

So I slept for about six hours, got back up, and decided to run a few more laps at 1 in the morning (what better time to run?) and passed a number of people who had been out there the whole time (who, with their fast start, were now predictably trudging along), but the mucous was heading back into my lungs, and that was it for me. I hit just over 60 miles, went back to the tent that Laurie Colon had so generously set up for us, and hung out with Mark Rodriguez (stopped due to blistering at about the same mileage) for a little while before we went back to his heated car to sleep some more.

We got up around 7, and I took the most brutally cold shower ever in the restrooms (I had to, because I was not getting on a plane that dirty), cursing all the way, accusing Cleveland of being a giant concentration camp as I shivered uncontrollably under the cold mist, which did almost nothing to rinse the soap off. We went to the timing table to officially check out, to take our medals, and to have one last photo op:

Race official: "Just ignore the part on the sign that says '2010'"

Then off to the airport, to eat a burrito at "Currito" (which was actually pretty good, or maybe I was just hungry), and to write this report.

Okay, in all seriousness, a few parting comments:

The biggest problem with Cleveland is not that it is this bad, but that people in Cleveland seem to think that it's OKAY for things to be this bad. From the smoking in the non-smoking hotel room, to the randomly-stocked aid station at the race, everybody had the attitude as if this was fine, and it was okay to inconvenience people this way. Look, guys, seriously - if you want people to take this seriously as a NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP event, you have to raise the bar a little. It's not a big deal if this is just some random stupid race, but you've made lofty claims and failed to deliver.

The exchange between Mark and I on the course: "we are all witnesses" (reference the Lebron James poster), to which the reply is "this is bullshit" is an epic classic, and was totally worth the price of admission.

I have never laughed so long or so hard at a race in my life. I'm going to be first in line to sign up for this ordeal next year. :)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

2011 Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run - Pace Report

(. . . weekly mileage at the end, maybe, if I feel like it . . .)

Dave Snipes, aka "Sniper," is an East Coast ultrarunning legend for the frequency and consistency with which he races (coming in to Wasatch, 220 ultras run in the past 10 years, with only 1 ultra DNF), as well as a good friend of mine ever since he "saved my life" by giving me a water bottle at Old Dominion in 2008, when I was foolishly running without one. So when he gave me the opportunity to pace for him at the 2011 Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run, the last race in his bid to complete The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (Western States, Vermont, Leadville, and Wasatch, all100-mile runs, all about a month apart) The Last Great Race (all of the preceding, plus Old Dominion, about three weeks before Western States, and Angeles Crest a week after Vermont, both 100-mile runs),and The Western Slam (Western States, Angeles Crest, Leadville, and Wasatch), I was immediately grateful for the opportunity to help him out, as well as to preview the Wasatch course. I made my travel arrangements a couple weeks before the race (thanks, Priceline, for the awesome last-minute deal), and before I knew it, I was on a plane bright and early on Thursday morning, headed from Philadelphia to Salt Lake City.

The flight was uneventful, and I met Sniper at the rental car counter at SLC, where we soon were introduced to Magellan, the voice-changing lesbian GPS (so dubbed for the seemingly arbitrary lower voice when naming certain streets), which quickly acquired the "ego-boost" feature, as a result of my irritation at the GPS's apparent need to reassure us that we were going the right way every 15 seconds, rudely interrupting our conversation. We added our own commentary: "Gosh, you look nice today!" "Is that a new hat? It looks great on you!" "Where did you get that haircut? They did such a great job!" Yes, we were going to have fun on this trip, no matter how awful the race might turn out.

After the requisite Wal-Mart stop for a $99 point-and-shoot camera to photo-document our adventure, plus a stop at Sniper's favorite retail outlet, the Dollar Tree (which, it turns out, has all of the supplies you might need to run an ultra, at an unbeatable price), and finally, a stop at McDonald's (where the sodas were tightly controlled, but the french fries were somehow the best I've ever had at a McDonald's), we went to the packet pickup and pre-race meeting. The meeting lasted only 20 minutes, and they went over only the most important rules (most of which were not very strictly enforced during the race anyway). I suppose when the race is as difficult as this one, they figure common sense will ultimately reign supreme. We collected our swag (containing a lifetime supply of camo-pattern Moeben sleeves, courtesy of Shannon Farar-Griefer, as well as four pacer bibs - you know, just in case anybody else wanted in on these wilderness shenanigans), and then went to meet Collin Anderson for a run up to Grandeur Peak (with the race tomorrow, Sniper wisely chose to sit this one out). I got a few good pictures from the top, and a few good road rashes from a wipeout on the way down, when I was flying down a steep downhill and caught my left toe on a rock - thankfully, no serious injury, and then it was off to dinner at the Spaghetti Factory, final preparations at the hotel, and then sweet, sweet sleep for about five hours.

The alarm went off at 2:45, and we dressed, packed our things, and headed for the buses to the starting line, conveniently a block down the street from the Motel 6. We had a dark, quiet bus ride, and then, ominously enough, we were dropped off AT THE BOTTOM OF A STEEP HILL, left on our own to walk uphill to the starting line. We had about half an hour before the start to make any last-minute changes to our plans, which involved me going back to the hotel with another runner's wife (Miriam Wilcox, whose husband Adam Wilcox would finish eighth, in a bit over 22 hours, and earn the prestigious Cheetah belt buckle), sleeping a bit more, then going out to the Big Mountain aid station with her when she went to wait for Adam, then waiting at the aid station until Sniper showed up. This all seemed good enough, so I had plenty of wherewithal to take a video of the start (which was hard to see, because unless you pass the gate in front of the start, you can't see the runners in front).

The start . . .

Then I caught a ride with Miriam back to the hotel. I got a few more hours of sleep, a little tour of Temple Square, an awesome breakfast at a Mormon cafeteria there (really, they're too nice!), and did a little bit of sightseeing and geocaching with Miriam at the "holding area" for cars before we went up to Big Mountain around noon to wait for Adam.

At Temple Square - almost as imposing as some of the climbs and descents in this race. ;)

Our lovely "holding area" . . .

Miriam said that Adam wanted video of him coming down Big Mountain, so I decided to practice by shooting a video of the first person I saw coming down the mountain, which turned out to be none other than ultrarunning elite Karl Meltzer.

Karl Meltzer, crusing in to Big Mountain (mile 39.4)

So that immediately went on Facebook, properly tagged and hash-tagged, poor cell phone signal be damned. Adam came through about 20 minutes behind Karl, looking strong as well.

Adam Wilcox, entering Big Mountain

After his quick stop at the aid station (a minute, if that), Miriam packed up and left, and I was on my own, meandering about the aid station, alternately seeking shade and warmth as the situation warranted, watching the runners come in. Sniper was hoping for a sub-30-hour finish, which would have had him at the aid station at around 2:30, but 2:30 came, and instead, Collin showed up, to pace another runner for about 15 miles. I chatted with him briefly before he had to take off, and he commented that my pack (15-20 extra pounds, depending on the amount of water in the bladder) was a bit much, to which I responded that I felt like it was a fair handicap, on top of which I needed to be absolutely certain that I had all of the supplies that I might need to ensure a successful finish for Sniper. Collin eventually left, the clock continued to run, and still no Sniper.

At about 4:30, as I sat in a chair near the aid station entrance, jacket on, legs wrapped in a trash bag to keep warm against the insult of the cold wind, Ryan, a local gentleman who is a friend of one of Sniper's friends, and his father showed up to help crew. Since there are very few crew access points during the race (only three, and none in the critical last 25 miles), we weren't sure how helpful they could be, but as it turned out, they had an extensive knowledge of the trails and local environment, and were an able extra set of hands at the aid stations that they could access.

Finally, at around 5 p.m., Sniper came in, later than he had hoped.

Sniper arrives at Big Mountain

Knowing Sniper, I suspected that things were generally not going too well. The first words out of his mouth - "This is TOUGH!" were instant confirmation. I knew that we were no longer pushing for a sub-30-hour finish, but simply a finish within the 36-hour time limit, to complete the Slam,the Last Great Race and the Western Slam. My role would be primarily of the patient companion, helping to maintain a comfortable pace for him, and administering the ass-kicking only when necessary. After about ten minutes at the aid station, we set off down the trail to Upper Alexander, and my first taste of this amazing race. Part of my job as pacer was also to be his "PP," or Personal Paparazzi." With my trusty red Wal-Mart camera in hand, I would be taking pics along the course of the beautiful mountains while he was running the race.

Sniper was right - this was tough. We immediately started climbing out of the aid station, under tree cover, but that soon gave way to an exposed downhill, which afforded incredible views, but not much help in the way of increasing the pace, due to the steep, rocky trail. The exposed roller-coaster ride continued the entire way to Upper Alexander, and we enjoyed views of an ominous raincloud in the distance, occasional flashes of lightning, and conversation about everything and nothing. It was clear that my presence was helping, as we caught and passed seven runners on our way to the aid station, in spite of our slow, steady progress.

Thunderstorm in the distance . . . thankfully, it never reached us (or, we never reached it . . .)

We reached Upper Alexander, admired the sunset (and I posted pictures to Facebook for the rest of the world to share), and then it was off to Lamb's Canyon.

Sun sets on Friday . . . still more than half of the race remains.

We stopped briefly a couple of times - for a photo op with Andy Kumeda and Catra Corbett, and to put on our headlamps as it got darker.

Light-hearted photo op. :)

We kept our eyes peeled for the tricky hidden right turn onto a single-track trail, just after the power lines crossed over the path. The turn was marked, but in a way that you could have easily missed it if you weren't looking for it. We went back and forth with Shannon Farar-Griefer and her pacer Cheryl in this section, ultimately arriving at Lamb's Canyon at about the same time. This gave me a chance to take a picture of Sniper with Shannon and Cheryl (where all were clearly showing signs of the toll that 50+ miles of this rugged terrain had taken on them), post it to Facebook, and assemble my pack for our trudge to Milcreek.

The start of a long night for some legendary ultrarunners . . .

We set off down a seemingly endless paved road that went under I-80 and climbed to another hard-to-see right turn onto the trailhead. At the trailhead, Sniper wanted the Butt Paste to stave off some potential chafing, but when he went into my pack to look for it, he couldn't find the baggie that I had put it in. This prompted a brief panic, as that baggie also had my iPhone charger in it. I reassured Sniper that we would worry about that later - right now, the focus needed to be on getting through this race, and particularly, this next hellish climb. After a single-track climb and descent, we were dumped unceremoniously onto another paved road, where we walked uphill about three miles against an increasingly cold wind. By the time we reached Milcreek, we were both uncomfortably cold, in spite of our added layers.

I took the relatively rare opportunity at Milcreek to use an outhouse, as well as to empty my pack, and discovered the "lost" baggie - it had been shoved deep into the bottom of the pack, behind the water bladder - no wonder Sniper couldn't find it. We rearranged our layers, put cream on our bare legs to stave off the cold, and thanked Ryan, his wife, and his father for their generous assistance at the aid stations, since they had no opportunity to see us for the rest of the race.

Then, onward, to another cold climb to the next aid station, at Desolation Lake - cheerful indeed. Sniper and I were both starting to fall asleep on our feet at this point, and shots of Mountain Dew could do only so much. They did make us punchy enough to have a flirtatious exchange with a woman at the aid station, where her friend revealed that she also had nipple rings (although regrettably, the brain cells were not firing quick enough to propose a "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" deal at the time - that bright idea sparked later, about 10 minutes down the trail to the next aid station), and then Sniper asked her if she wanted to make out in the bushes, to which she responded that her husband was right there, to which Sniper responded that his back was turned (which it literally was, towards the campfire).

This bit of levity made the climb up to the next aid station, at over 9000 feet, a bit more bearable, not to mention that we felt good about having helped a fallen runner in the previous section by giving him a poncho for warmth as we passed him sleeping by the side of the trail, pacer standing watch. We gave another runner Tums for cramping in this section of the course, because we're good (Samaritans) like that (especially Sniper). When we had finally traversed the windy, cold, exposed ridgeline, we were heartbroken to learn that we still had 4.8 miles to Brighton. I thought that Sniper was upset because he thought that it was only 4 miles, but I later learned that he thought that Brighton was the next aid station, which is a much more severe mental blow.

In spite of dashed hopes, we trekked onward towards lower ground, mostly on roads. For me, this was where lack of sleep was at its worst. I was hallucinating anything and everything on the side of the dark, endless paved road, including a Lufthansa jet (seriously). Of course, being the steadfast pacer, I couldn't tell Sniper this, so when he asked (as he periodically does) how I was doing, I simply said, "Sleepy, but I'll make it." Fortunately, as we reached cell phone signal range again,Facebook on my iPhone provided the stimulus to wake me up, without the need for caffiene (which really says something about the drug-like nature of Facebook). I took and posted a picture of Sniper making the last cruel little climb to the Brighton Lodge, and we were then treated to warmth, real bathrooms, and egg sandwiches and hash browns for breakfast.
Our last climb in the dark, to the Brighton Aid Station

At this point, about 75 miles into the race, it was about 6:30 a.m. - 10.5 hours until the time limit, to go 25 miles. But the climb to Sunset Pass, the highest point on the course, loomed imminently, not to mention the unknown (but probably difficult) terrain beyond the pass. Sniper was beginning to worry about not making it to the finish line on time, but I was ever-optimistic, as was my duty. We made the steep climb to Sunset Pass - 10,200 feet elevation - and descended to the next aid station, having seen one moose along the way, with no injury to show for it, in spite of my flash photography to capture the moment. With daylight in full effect, and the belief that our worst climb was behind us, we left the aid station with high hopes . . .

Good morning, baby moose. :)

Highest marking on the course. I think there might be a nice view, too. :)

Only to be thwarted by a hellishly steep climb, followed by a similarly steep descent. It took a little over an hour for us to travel the next 3.12 miles to our next aid station - worst 5K ever. Now Sniper was really starting to worry that the rest of the course would be equally miserable. It was not helpful when he asked the aid station volunteers about the next section, and their response was "six miles that everybody says runs like 9." Upon hearing this, Sniper took off in a huff, with me in tow. He proceeded to be what we call a "Betty Bitchy Britches" as he complained that the trail was impassible, and that there would be no way to make up time.

Grunting up a short, nasty climb during the "5K" stretch of the course . . .

It was here that the ass-kicking was needed, and I administered it strategically. On the steep, rocky 600-foot descent (called "The Plunge"), I gave him a lecture on fast downhill running, and then proceeded to demonstrate by bombing down the descent at about half-speed, leaving him and several other runners in the dust. It worked, though, because although he begged for me to slow down, he had to speed up to catch me, which, in the process, convinced him that he could do better than he was doing on these trails. Sure enough, about two hours later, we arrived at the last aid station, at around quarter to 1 p.m. - 7 miles remaining, and over four hours to complete the distance.

From there to the finish, the race was anticlimactic, as we both knew finishing was within reach, and there was no need to push too hard and jeopardize completion when we were so close to the goal. We spent the last seven miles climbing briskly up a very east-coast style graded dirt road, to a downhill on a very east-coast style rocky ATV trail (minus the divot in the middle of the trail, but that's to be expected in a state which is apparently obsessed with divots, ever since they realized that Salt Lake City was built in a giant one), to a final clean, gently-downhill single-track trail onto a road to the finish. The last, very East-Coast-style climb

With his signature sprint, Sniper crossed the line in 33 hours, 38 minutes, and 35 seconds, 2 hours, 21 minutes, and 25 seconds ahead of the 36-hour cut-off time. He hugged me, and we proceeded to the Homestead for uncomfortably cold showers before the post-race meal and awards ceremony, where Sniper was honored for his Grand Slam finish along with the remainder of the "Class of 2011." The Grand Slam Class of 2011

All in all, the race was a wild, unique experience. Pacing somebody else is definitely an exercise in unselfish patience, and although I've paced ultras in the past, this was my highest-stakes pacing job yet, and arguably the most challenging. Because of that, I'm proud of Sniper for finishing, and grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this once-in-lifetime experience. Wasatch is now on my "must-run" list for 2012, and I'm excited to chase the coveted sub-24-hour Cheetah buckle . . . Not to mention the paper crown that comes along with it. :)


A few more minutes won't hurt, so here was my weekly mileage, 4-10 September 2011:

4 September: 10 miles (75 minutes), after The Ring, narrowly missing the Grand Prix, wearing my beloved LunarGlides

5 September: 8 miles (60 minutes), Patterson Park area

6 September: 2 miles (15 minutes), loop around Patterson Park

7 September: 9 miles (65 minutes), downtownish

8 September: 1 mile (10 minutes), just keeping the streak alive

9 September: 7 miles (90 minutes), climb to Grandeur Peak and back

10 September: 35 miles (780 minutes), pacing Snipes at the Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run (end week at 6 a.m. on 11 September)

Total Minutes: 1095
Total Miles: 72

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Race Report: The Ring (Update - Includes Week of 28 August - 3 September)

The Ring 2011

The road to redemption is rugged, rocky, and relentless when it goes through The Ring. First in my Fall 2011 "redemption series," this 71-mile circuit of the Massanutten Mountains via the orange trail is deceptively difficult. Virtually no support other than a water stop around 13 miles for the first 25 miles, and then, as the aid gets closer, it's offset by the increasing difficulty of the trail. Still, with the training base that I had coming into this race, I thought I had a good shot at a strong finish.

And for a little while (something to the tune of 50 miles), it seemed like this was the case. With my hydration pack loaded with 80 ounces of water, PowerBar GelBlasts, and assorted other goodies, I set off down the trail with high hopes. After a few minor wrong turns at the beginning, we began the first climb, and since it was humid and swampy and I was losing water at an alarming rate, I climbed conservatively, letting the leaders go. After passing a few people, I settled into third, and the run to the Milford Gap aid station at mile 13 was efficient and uneventful - just over 3 hours.

At the aid station, I downed more than half a gallon of water straight from the jug, ate a cookie, and continued down the trail, still feeling pretty good. Another relatively efficient section, still in third, and running conservatively, since I was running through my entire water pack quickly (empty about halfway through the section). Running out of water made taking my electrolyte tablets a problem, since I can't swallow a pill without water, so I resorted to putting a couple of Gel Blasts in my mouth, chomping down to bust open the pill, then frantically chewing the Gel Blasts to kill the awful taste. I kept on my 20-minute schedule for this, and rolled in to Camp Roosevelt at about 5 hours, 40 minutes, still feeling comfortable.

At the aid station, Jonathan was hanging out (and had been for the past 20 minutes), and was not looking like he wanted to leave. He asked how fast I would be going, to which I responded "not very," and that, combined with the urging of the aid station volunteers, got him up and running with me. Jason Lantz, the apparent leader, was nowhere to  be found.

We continued down the trail, and about 20 minutes later, we came upon Jason Lantz, walking and out of water. Apparently, he had missed the turn-off onto the road to the aid station, in spite of the dozens of orange streamers marking the turn. (Which really should be enough to pass the title of "Lost Boy" from me to him.) So with him off to drop out, Jonathan and I were in the lead. We pushed back and forth a bit, until he ran out of water and salt and started cramping, and I ran off ahead. At this point, nearing halfway through the race, I was potentially permanently in the lead, assuming that I did nothing too stupid, and this was super-exciting. So of course, I immediately did something stupid - I ran straight through a switchback and off-course about a mile, costing me about 20 minutes. I didn't see Jonathan when I returned to the trail, so I figured that he had probably passed me in the meantime. I hauled up the steep,  formidable Waterfall Mountain in 17 minutes (bettering Dave Snipes's best for this section by 3 minutes, a minor victory, in spite of stopping three times along the way to get my skyrocketing heart rate under control), and rolled into the aid station at a bit over 8 hours . . .

To find Jonathan sitting there, as he had been for the last 10 or 15 minutes. He was still talking drop, as people were still trying to talk him out of it, so when I came in, it was motivation for him to keep going . . . So it would be another 6 miles with Jonathan. I stayed just ahead of him, and predictably, he cramped once he ran out of water, and I took a slight lead, although not enough to prevent us from entering the next aid station together.

At 40 miles, Jonathan said that he was going to drop, and of course, I was going to do everything in my power not to drop, so, after 15 minutes of collecting myself, I left the aid station without him, in first place, and put on the headphones . . . Only to find him AND his girlfriend coming for me a couple of miles later. I sped up to put some distance on them, but his girlfriend could run for real (which was an extra psychological detriment, given my current life situation), so it was going to be me and my iPod against him and his girlfriend. As it turned out, I had only about a minute on him, heading into the next aid station.

Mile 48, 12.5 hours in, a solid pace, especially given the amount of dawdling I had done, but unfortunately, I had lost a bit of concentration in the last section, gotten behind on nutrition and electrolytes, and was now in a bit of nutritional trouble. After a while, eating and drinking on a schedule just plain sucks, and between the rolling, rocky Kerns Mountain ridge  and Jon and girlfriend, it was just a bit too much suckage for me to handle. I should also mention at this point that my feet had been blistered badly since sometime in the first 10 miles, and although I was trying my best to ignore this, it was becoming too much to bear at this point. Chalk that up to a failed experiment with different shoes - Nike LunarGlides for life. I spent half an hour at the aid station, until the next runner came in. Meanwhile, Jon dropped for real, mainly because he "wasn't feeling like doing this." As he walked back to his car with his girlfriend, I decided that this was the best time to make a move, psychologically, so I got up and started shuffling down the trail again, before anybody else could come along to change Jon's mind.

The climb up to Powell's Fort was not steep or severe, but here was where the wheels came off. I hadn't settled my stomach all the way, and now I was really struggling the foot pain (and cursing my decision to experiment with different shoes). I slowed and slowed, and eventually stopped, and fell asleep on a rock (or tried to, anyway - there were too many bugs to make this possible) for a while. A couple of people passed me and tried to offer assistance at what would later be dubbed "The Ploskonka Inn - Powell's Fort" - Cam Baker with a trash bag for warmth and chocolate candy, and another woman with a startled scream when she came upon me (it was dark now) and thought that I was dead. Finally, a man came along who said that he might be in last, and I decided that it was time to get up, since I still had six miles to the next aid station. We walked slowly, and he broke off a couple of branches for me to use as makeshift trekking poles. Eventually, we reached the turn-off where there was still 3 miles to the aid station, and I decided that I couldn't make it that far without rest, so I stopped again to sleep. Eventually, I got up and shuffled about a mile down the trail, being passed by the slowest people, until I came upon Dave Snipes, the one-man search party, and we walked the last two miles to the aid station in about an hour, reaching Woodstock Tower at around 20 hours - 8 hours to do 8 miles.

At this point, 57 miles in, although part of me really wanted to finish, another part of me knew that my feet were trashed, and considering that at this point, my priority was more pacing Snipes at Wasatch next weekend than suffering through the next 14 miles, I decided to drop (Snipes voted strongly for this, as he wanted me fresh at Wasatch) and Snipes and I drove back to the campsite for a shower and a nap.

So, all in all, not how I wanted this to go down, but technically a success. I made it further than I did last year (I dropped at mile 35), so technically, some level of redemption. I almost drank enough water (although even at 80 ounces per 40 minutes, it still wasn't really enough), and my nutrition plan was sound, as I made it nearly 50 miles without even a hint of a stomach problem - a first for me. But ultimately, my stupid shoe choice - a rookie mistake, really - did me in, and made me subject to tons of ridicule as I sat around in the Signal Knob parking lot, waiting to congratulate the rest of the about 10 finishers (out of about 33 starters) . . . And also subject to the worst mushroom cloud of ultra-stench ever (I blame it on the Pittsburgh and Ohio contingent), which put a bit of a damper on the really amazing cookies and quesadilla.  Nevertheless, I'll be back for a third round next fall, and this time, I mean it. :P


Because I posted this shortly after the race, just to get it out there, I didn't bother with my weekly miles summary. But, if you want to know . . .

28 August - 9 miles, Patterson Park area, post-hurricane (65 minutes)

29 August - 11 miles (80 minutes), generally in the direction of Fed Hill and back

30 August - 9 miles (65 minutes), including a botched track workout that consisted of one 2500-meter interval at around 5:50/mile pace, then dropping out of the next interval at about 500 meters in.

31 August - 11 miles (80 minutes) on my own Wednesday Night Run, in a similar area

1 September - 5 miles (40 minutes) on the treadmill, easy

2 September - 1 mile (10 minutes), shakeout/hydration pack test

3 September - 60 miles (counting "off-course" distance) at The Ring (20 hours, or 1200 minutes, not all of which was time moving forward)

Total Time: 1540 minutes
Total Distance: 107 miles