Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Antelope Island Buffalo Run Race Report


            Yes, it’s called the Buffalo Run, but I didn’t really expect to have any close encounters with bison. When I first heard of the race, it did worry me. I’d been to Antelope Island once before, in summer, and remembered that there were no trees, no shade of any kind. The thought of running all day in full sun did not appeal - not after my latest ultra ambitions had wilted in the heat at the North Coast 24-hour race. But a few friends and acquaintances from Ohio were going, I had family nearby in Salt Lake City…and it turned out the race was in March. Surely it would be cool - perhaps even cold. So, I signed up. The bison weren’t even an afterthought. As my friend Mark Tichinel put it, this hundred miler, on what looked to be a fun, fast course, would be a good “spring fitness test.”

Flying in to Salt Lake City.
            In the weeks before the race the Ohio crew nervously (in my case, anyway) perused the extended weather forecasts. It had been an unusually warm winter in Salt Lake City, and highs in the 70s (Fahrenheit) looked like a real possibility. Low 70s, mind you, and dry – so probably not a major issue – but a bit warmer than I’d like with nearly all my recent training in the -10 to 25 oF range. 

Solitary bull, just before charging our car.
I flew in to Salt Lake City on Wednesday and drove out to Antelope Island with my parents on Thursday afternoon. On the drive out to the Ranch we spotted a solitary bison grazing just off the road, and stopped to take a few photos from the car. Soon the old bull grew weary of our presence, turned toward us and charged. I floored it, and a ton of nimble muscle, bone and horn passed harmlessly behind. This show of aggression surprised me. I certainly did not want to see any of these beasts at close range out on the trails. 

With a noon start time, race morning was leisurely. My parents dropped me off on the island a bit before 11. I picked up my race packet and delivered my three drop bags to the pick-up area just outside the main tent. I’d spent hours putting together these drop bags, and ended up visiting them only three times during the race - to pick up headlamps, jacket and ipod for the dark hours. Ten thousand calories, all told, and I ended up grabbing just a single package of Clif shot blocks. I guess this is a testament to the aid station fare, which provided everything I needed – but clearly I have some things to learn about drop bag economy.

With Mark Pancake and Mark Tichinel at the start.
            While milling around in the parking lot, spraying on sunscreen and applying anti-friction agents, I ran into fellow Ohioans Mark Pancake and Jennifer Duncan (who would be running the 50k – her first ultra - the next morning). We met up with Mark Tichinel and his wife Sue in the start area, and before long the race director, Jim Skaggs, drew a line in the sand with his foot and told us we could go. 

            The trail led us up a gentle climb to a low ridge with spectacular views of the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch mountains. I ran this section with Mark Pancake, until he stopped to snap some photos. Mark and I had met briefly a few times before, but had never really had a chance to chat. It was good to catch up and learn a bit about his life.   

            After about six miles the course turned onto a rocky out-and-back to Elephant Head, during which I noticed I was somewhere in the middle to back of the pack. No worries - I’d settled into the pace I wanted, and it was way too early to give any thought to race position. I thought of the Bob Dylan line I sometimes use as a mantra. The slow one now may not later be fast…but might be less slow.

I caught up to Mark Tichinel around the 10-mile mark, at the base of a set of switchbacks leading back up to the higher country. We power-hiked the switchbacks and then ran on together at a comfortable pace, chatting along the way and passing a few runners over the next several miles. Returning to Elephant Head aid station, I quickly refilled my bottle with Heed, and Mark waved me on as he refilled with water.  

The journey back to the start/finish area was mostly downhill and I passed several more runners on the way. A brief refill and I was en route to the long, flat out and back section on the eastern side of the island. By this time it was pretty warm, and I was beginning to feel the effects. With the wind at my back, sweat dribbled down my forehead, dissolving its way through salts that had dried on during the last headwind. These hypersaline driblets burned my eyes, but were only a minor issue - one I knew wouldn’t last. More worrisome was a slightly unsettled stomach that I hoped would not ripen into full gastric rebellion as the race unfolded.

As the trail dipped toward the lake flats I noticed a strange phenomenon ahead. Faint dark cones arose from the shore like a string of campfires, with regular spacing. Soon I heard an accompanying buzz, and passed through one of the outlier cones further from the shore. Flies - but thankfully not the biting kind. They followed in my wake and I briefly sprinted to shake them. Some of their carcasses remained on my face and neck at the end of the race.

Twenty-five miles out I passed a muscular runner who was clearly having trouble. As I went by I asked if he was OK and he said, “I’m blowing up. But this always happens at this point in a race. I’ll rally.” Sure enough, we passed again later on an out and back and he looked great (I saw later that he finished in a solid time). I admire that kind of resilience. In my limited experience, when things go that far south for me the downward spiral continues.

I had read somewhere that bison tended to favor the eastern side of the island, and soon I encountered a solitary bull just off the trail. Recalling the encounter of the day before, I set off through the bush, giving him a wide berth and only a sideways glance. He ignored me and I carried on. Not long after I came across a small herd of a half dozen or so animals, and left the trail again to avoid them. One male feinted in my direction but I was soon past and none followed. A few miles later, approaching the turnaround at the Ranch aid station, one of the leading runners passed me from the other direction and said, “There’s a big pissed-off herd on the trail ahead. Your best bet is to go high.” I soon found them, a large group of 50-100, and took the recommended action, hugging close to a small escarpment that I hoped the bison would avoid. I was back on trail without incident within half a mile and at the aid station (mile 33) shortly after. 
 
            And there were my parents! Along with my 13 year old nephew, Trent. I hadn’t expected to see anyone until the next morning, but they had gone back to SLC and made the return trip. It was a pleasant jolt to see them. I refilled my bottle and grabbed a snack, then gave a quick hug to everyone, thanked them for coming and was on my way back north. Trent told me later that I looked odd with dead bugs all over my face.

            Soon I had returned to the mega-herd, and found that they had moved up right to the edge of the escarpment. The high off-trail route was no longer an option, so I looked to the low end. The herd was moving up from the lake flats but stragglers remained, strung out for a considerable distance east of the trail. I was sure it would be a bad idea to try to cut through the line, so headed sharply east off-trail to go around them in a wide arc. The stragglers sped to a trot and I was able to pass safely behind.

            I made a brief visit to my drop bag at Lower Frary to pick up a light jacket (with ipod in the pocket) and my first headlamp. At this point I had been running solo for about 23 miles, with a couple of runners within sight ahead of me for the last few miles. I saw one at the aid station, and moved on while he was still at his drop bag. Shortly afterward, I caught up to the other when she left the trail for what I first assumed to be a pit stop - but was actually an attempt to avoid a bison herd lingering near the trail ahead. I yelled that I thought we could pass them safely on the trail and we paired up to run by them. Later we introduced ourselves, and since our paces and strategies seemed to match, we ended up running the next ~12 miles together.

Leslie was leading the women’s field and would later go on to set the course record, besting the previous mark by more than half an hour (you can read more about it here: http://triathlon-mom.blogspot.com/2015/03/buffalo-run-100-raced-to-my-potential.html) It was great to meet Leslie and chat with her for a couple of hours – an impressive runner and an interesting person. Four kids (ages 3-11, if I remember right), hundred mile course record, last half mile at sub-5:00/mi pace...I’ll spare you the math: the answer is badass.

The sun dropped behind the ridge soon after I passed the Lower Frary aid station, and the air cooled off quickly. Although I was still experiencing mild gastric discomfort – and this would continue for nearly the entire race - it didn’t balloon and never became a real issue. It just made the run a little less pleasant.

Leslie and I pulled in to the start/finish after completing the first loop in ~9:05, a time each of us was happy with. I filled up my bottle and went to my drop bag, picking up a package of Clif shot blocks (being too lazy to reach back and grab one from my rear pocket) and a can of Red Bull, then quickly heading back out to the trail. I didn’t see Leslie but knew she was picking up a pacer here. I put in my earbuds, turned on the ipod and set off up the gentle incline at an easy pace, sipping the Red Bull and downing a few shot blocks on the way.

The music gave me a boost and this 20-mile section went by steadily and smoothly. I saw a headlight ahead going up the switchbacks I’d climbed with Mark Tichinel earlier, and passed the runner, who looked pretty gassed, just before the Elephant Head aid station. I passed another runner, whom I remembered being in the lead pack on the first loop, at about mile 67 – I gave him some encouragement but it looked like his legs were shot (he did finish, though, I think in 8th place). Leslie and her pacer appeared to be a few minutes behind me.

Back at the start/finish with 70 miles on the odometer and 30 to go, I picked up my second headlamp – the ultra-bright Petzl NAO – but kept my first one with me, being uncertain how long either would last. My energy was starting to fade and carrying the Petzl in my hand was a drag. I finally switched out the headlamps on my second pass through Mountain View aid station, hoping the Petzl would last through the rest of the night (it did). The long flat trail out to the Ranch was tough on the second running. I forced myself to run as much as I could but often lapsed into a power hike. The music wasn’t working for me any more, and my breathing wasn’t in synch with my stride. I tried to get my breathing in rhythm, but failed. Strange.

Arriving at Lower Frary, one of the volunteers said “Wow, you’ve passed some people since the last time through!” and I asked what place I was in. Fourth. Sounded good to me. My pre-race goals were based on time rather than place, and a sub-20 hr finish still seemed feasible, but it was too far out to be sure. Numbers 1 and 2 passed by on the return trip and I was surprised not to encounter #3 (Jeremy) until the Ranch aid station. I chatted with him, his pacer and the aid station volunteers while I downed half a cup of ramen noodles (that hit the spot –first thing that settled my stomach all day). Jeremy and his pacer took off and I left right after, just as Leslie and her pacer – looking strong, moving like a freight train – pulled into the aid station. I yelled out to Leslie to go smash that record and set off after Jeremy, feeling pretty good and thinking maybe he was dying just a bit. (I didn’t say I was completely oblivious to place…)

But no. I kept up with Jeremy and his pacer for a mile or so, took a brief walking break to rehydrate - and they were gone, never to be seen again. Later, at the finish, Jeremy would tell me they were running scared the whole way back, thinking I’d switched off my headlamp and was sneaking up behind. I’m not that kind of a guy (and even if I were, my night vision is truly awful and it would be a really bad idea to switch off my headlamp) – but hey, it spurred him on to a fast time (he gained 30 minutes on me over 16 miles, and I wasn’t moving all that slowly).

Eight-five miles down, fifteen to go. All parts seemed to be working fine, just the usual accumulation of pain in the quads. But the fun was done, and I was ready to join it. I pressed on, focused on maintaining decent form and running as much as possible.

Arriving at the Mountain View aid station, I asked how far it was to the finish. Six miles. A sub-20:00 race remained possible, but I wouldn’t be able to walk it in. I ran across the field to Bridger Bay, then played it safe and power-hiked through the rocky section of trail around Buffalo Point. Rounding the point onto smoother ground, I saw a small herd of bison just off the trail. I convinced myself they were asleep and snuck past without disturbing them. A final bit of paved road, a shallow descent on dirt past a campground and I was back at the fence. With little fanfare at the finish I jogged it in. Usually I sprint the final leg, but I’d looked at my watch, knew the sub-20 was in the bag and simply couldn’t find the motivation to exert myself. Final time: 19:43. Good for 4th overall, and 1st in the master’s division (I think – there were some issues with the timing and final results still haven’t been posted, to my knowledge). 
Finisher awards: 100-mile buckle and a sweet mug.

With Mom and Dad.
My parents had asked me to call to let them know approximately what time I’d be finishing. I told them I’d try - but if they didn’t hear from me it probably meant things were going well and I was pushing hard to the finish. As it turned out, I never pulled out my phone on the course. So my first thought on entering the tent was to dial my parents. But – surprise, again – there they were. I was able to wish Jennifer Duncan luck just before she set out on her 50k, and later, after a few mugs of buffalo stew, my sister and her three daughters showed up. Very nice to see them all. Mark Pancake arrived at the finish line, running strong, in 23:50 (a PR by 2+ hours) and Mark Tichinel at 25:15, still smiling after a rough night (and morning) of what sounded like pretty intense gastric disturbance (he was puking all over the place). 
With sister Amy, and her daughters Sophie, Jane and Ellie.

Recovery has gone well, much better than expected. To my surprise, it felt like I’d just run a marathon. Muscle pain only, no issues with ligaments or tendons. For this I have Joe Uhan to thank – almost a year ago he suggested a slight form adjustment that corrected a small but important asymmetry in my gait, and I’ve had no tendon or ligament issues since.   

Final thoughts: first-class race, great volunteers, starkly beautiful venue – with the “entertaining” bonus of unpredictable wild animals. A fun, fast course indeed - but the flat section is more challenging mentally than you might expect. Well worth the trip - I’d recommend it to my friends. You know, the crazy ones.