Sunday, November 20, 2016

Conquer the Castle 100k Race Report

This wasn’t supposed to be a focus race. I signed up for it, in its inaugural running, after the rest of my racing calendar had been filled out – a local race at the end of the year with a director (Eddie Carrigg) I knew would put on a well organized event. It would be a good chance to practice fueling strategies for longer races and spend time outside in iffy weather.

            Then the election happened. For a week I was consumed with anger and sadness, incredulous that half the country had made what I considered such a reckless and repulsive choice. On one hand the race now seemed beside the point. On the other, I needed a release, and felt determined to run all out, fueled by the bitter emotions I’d been feeling all week.  
Race start - photo by Stuart Siegfried.
            The race started at noon, with temperatures in the mid-40s. I mingled a little after picking up my bib - and it was nice to see and chat with a few friends - but I wasn’t much in the mood for company. This was a race I would need to run alone, inside my own head. Everyone – 25k, 50k and 100k runners – started together, and I quickly settled into my own pace. After a couple of miles, I had warmed up enough to remove my light windbreaker and hat, and wouldn’t need to put them on again until the sun went down.
            The course consists of a “25k” loop (more like 26k+, actually) that winds through the North Chagrin Reservation, northeast of Cleveland. It is mostly bridle trail, with some asphalt (~15%) and some single track. The trails are not technical, except in a few stretches, but in mid-November there are plenty of trip hazards - mainly roots - buried under the thick carpet of leaves.

I train on the trails in the park fairly often, mostly to do repeats on steep, root-covered hills behind Squire’s Castle (which were not part of this course), but enough on some of the other trails to have a sense of the overall layout. Still, when I glanced at the map before the race I found it to be a bewildering, convoluted mess. It would be hopeless to rely on the map and my spotty knowledge of the trails for navigation - so I put the map away and decided simply to follow the course markings. That worked out well. The many turns and junctions were well marked, and aside from a couple of tricky spots I found the course easy to follow. There were some longer stretches between turns that had few if any confidence markers, and on these sections it was no doubt a benefit to have some familiarity with the trails.

The first loop went smoothly. I exchanged a few words with people along the way, but focused mainly on navigation and my nutrition experiment. In a 100-mile race my stomach typically begins to turn sour around the halfway point, and often a little earlier – around mile 40. I’ve found that I can manage it through a combination of tums and (especially) calorie restriction, but it remains persistent and makes a large chunk of the run unpleasant. The calorie restriction eventually takes a toll on my energy budget, and fear of gastrointestinal catastrophe holds me back from pushing in places I really should.

After my last race (Grindstone 100) it was pointed out to me (thanks, Sage Canaday and Sandi Nypaver!) that my GI issues might be related to a tendency to frontload calories. I typically start with a couple of calorie-laden bottles (320 in each) and consume ~70% of those calories in the first hour. My intestines can’t keep up with the influx – it’s way too much. Even after cutting back to ~150 cal/hr after the first hour or two, the gut bomb has been planted, and it ticks away until it explodes (slowly) later in the race.

That was the hypothesis, anyway. So at this race I decided to try a different approach, beginning with only 150 calories in the first hour and then increasing the load after my GI tract had warmed up. I started off with two 200-calorie bottles, and it turned out that was all I consumed during the first loop (2:41). Returning to my drop bag, I picked up a 400-calorie bottle (filling the other with water) and a couple of gels. From there on, I took in ~275 cal/hr, and my stomach handled it with no issues at all. I didn’t need any tums, and my energy was stable through the whole race. Next time, I’ll try ramping up my consumption a little earlier. When I took a swig from the 400-calorie bottle near the beginning of the 2nd loop, I felt an almost immediate surge of energy, at which point I realized it had been flagging a bit toward the end of loop 1.

I reached the end of loop 2 right around sunset. I’d been carrying a headlamp (Petzl Tikka) with me, but didn’t want to slow down to pull it out. I made it back to the start a little before 5:30 pm, just as it was getting too dark to see on the wooded trails, and quickly grabbed my Petzl NAO headlamp from the drop bag, figuring I would use it as long as possible. It died after only an hour and a half (apparently I’d charged it to less than a quarter of its capacity), but was great while it lasted. I like the Tikka too, but the NAO is on a different level, in terms of brightness and field of view. For the rest of the race I had only the Tikka to rely on – and had forgotten to bring a backup battery. A careless mistake, but it turned out that I didn’t need the extra battery.

At this point the field had cleared out, with the bulk of the racers (25k and 50k) having finished. I was mostly out in the dark by myself for the rest of the race, with a nearly full supermoon shining through the trees above. On the asphalt section near the beginning of lap 4, I turned off my headlamp and ran by the moonlight. A few times I heard large animals rustling through the brush near the trail – deer, the one time I caught a glance. Otherwise, I was left alone with my thoughts. At least, those I was unable to purge.

I’m no good at meditation, but usually find that I run more easily and efficiently if I’m able to empty my mind of thoughts that aren’t pertinent to the task at hand. During the previous week I’d forgotten this, and really believed that my amplified emotions would provide fuel for my race. They didn’t. I don’t think it’s possible to run an ultra on strong emotions - at least not for me. Instead the negative feelings evaporated away while I ran, not providing any fuel, but not presenting much of a distraction either.

As usual, there was music playing in my head for much of the race. It mostly consisted of pieces from Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, which I’d been listening to a lot the previous few weeks. The songs matched my mood, and were rendered more poignant by the death of the great songwriter and performer earlier in the week. And then, there was the random song that came out of nowhere toward the end of lap 3 - “Top of the World” by the Carpenters. I guess I was feeling pretty good at that point. Or something.

I completed loop 4 just before midnight, at 11:48 – the first of the 100k runners to finish. Eddie was there to present the finisher and overall winner awards, which
he’d made himself by hand. Looking back through my lap splits, I had slowed down a little more than I’d planned on throughout the race. The first two loops were almost even (3% positive) and the second two were as well (2% positive). The big jump (13%) was between laps two and three, which coincided with sunset. Part of the slowdown was due to running less of the technical/leafy sections in the dark, but accumulating muscle pain also played a role. I was able to run the last half mile or so comfortably at a pretty good clip, and it was good to know I had more in the tank if I’d needed it. 

            In the end, I’d consider this one of my most successful races, not so much for the win (which is always nice, believe me) but for what I learned about fueling. I’m confident the revised nutrition strategy will pay off in future races. And the negative emotions? Best to just let them float away.

Monday, February 29, 2016

H.U.R.T. 2016 Race Report

What kind of fool leaves Cleveland for Hawaii in the middle of January, a friend asked…to run 100 miles of ridiculously technical trail through the steamy jungle? Good question. I prepared myself as well as I could, spending quite a bit of time on the treadmill with the tilt turned all the way up, and commuting back and forth to work on a stretch of trail that is fairly rocky, as northeast Ohio footpaths go. And then I was dealt a dose of luck. On a weeklong trip to Vermont over the winter holidays the weather was unseasonably warm, and I was able to put in 80 miles and over 20,000 feet of vertical gain on the Long Trail and other local trails. That turned out to be excellent preparation for HURT: fewer roots, but all the rocks and then some. Returning to Cleveland, I focused on heat acclimation, bundling up for sweaty treadmill miles followed by time in the sauna.

From right to left: Lee, Christa and me. Photo: Mark Tichinel
The Cleveland crew – Lee, Christa and I were running, and Tonya, Mark and Sue were also along for vacation and support - rented a house about 25 miles north of Honolulu. The extended forecasts had predicted sunny skies all the way through race weekend. But it started raining in the wee hours on Thursday morning, and didn’t stop all day. Preparing myself mentally for a mudfest on Saturday, I drove that evening to Manoa to meet Clint, an old friend from grad school days, who lived near the course and had put the idea in my head a few years ago to try HURT. The rain gradually lightened as I made my way south, and there wasn’t even a cloud over Manoa – and hadn’t been all day. Different climate systems than what I was used to, that’s for sure. Taking a walk around Clint’s neighborhood I caught my first glimpse of the course – Manoa Falls and the ridge we would traverse to get there. It looked steep, rugged, and very green.

The mountains near Honolulu. Photo: Mark Tichinel
At the pre-race briefing, we were asked to write down our goals for the race and our primary source of motivation – what you would focus on to pull through the rough patches. I wrote that the goal was to extend my streak of vomit-free finishes. In truth I wanted a bit more than that – as usual, my goal was to run this race as fast as I could. But, while I had a vague idea what a reasonable finish time here might be, it seemed foolish to set a time goal for this course. As for the source of motivation, I gave the honest answer – no idea, I just don’t like to stop until I’m at the finish.

The "easy" trail near the start/finish.
At the start, Lee and I, who would end up running the first ~10 miles together, lined up mid-pack, next to a gentleman from Japan who was carrying an enormous backpack that looked like it weighed at least 40 pounds. I crossed paths with him again in the afternoon on the steep climb out of Nu’uanu – he was remarkably agile under all that weight. (Later I learned that this was Makoto Yoshimoto, who had completed the Tor des Geants with a similar pack, or maybe even the same one. It’s what he considers proper attire for running in the mountains.) The conch shell blew and we were off, settling in behind Candice Burt for the first stretch to Paradise Park. I’m usually not very talkative at the beginning of a race, and hung back a bit while Candice chatted with Lee about the 200-mile races she directs.

Heading back out of Paradise Park, we passed a string of runners traveling in the opposite direction. One greeted me as if he knew me, and a few minutes later another shouted out “You’re an inspiration!” and gave me a fist bump. I appreciated it, but was mildly confused. Later I figured out that I’d been mistaken for Travis Macy.

The first loop went by in 4:43. I knew this was not going to be a sustainable pace, based on my perusal of prior finish times at HURT - and in general I pride myself on running close to even splits. But, feeling comfortable and a little reckless, I didn’t back off the gas and hiked pretty hard up the root climb out of Nature Center. I remember thinking that I could finish the next loop in around 5 hours and then cruise through three 5:20 loops to finish in about 26 hours. Such sweet innocence.

It was pretty warm now – especially near the start/finish at Nature Center, which seemed to be the hottest spot all through the day – but I felt fine. A couple of miles into loop 2 I came to the one short stretch of road on the course. Just before reaching the trail head a tall man stepped out with a green coconut and asked if I’d like some coconut water. My initial reaction, before higher level thought processes had a chance to kick in, was that this might be some kind of trick. (We had been given clear instructions at pre-race that accepting any aid outside of an aid station was grounds for disqualification…) My face must have registered this thought, because he next said, “Everybody’s doing it!” Well, in that case… I took a swig, which went down well, and then a second man stepped up offering solid pieces of coconut. I recognized him as Michael Arnstein, and my skepticism relaxed. Surely last year’s winner wouldn’t be part of an elaborate sting operation. Still, I initially declined the offer. At this point coconut meat did not look at all appetizing. But Michael encouraged me to take a piece and toss it aside if I didn’t like it. So I did, and took a nibble as I descended on the next stretch of trail. Not bad. I gobbled up the rest, and it settled nicely in my stomach.

Bamboo forest. Photo: Mark Tichinel
Running alone on this loop, I paid more attention to the surroundings. Although the entire course is on basalt and covers less than 10 square miles, there are distinct changes in vegetation and microclimate along it. The trail winds through bamboo forests and banyan trees (and I do mean “through” – at one point the course passes under the roots of an enormous banyan). My favorite part was a stand of Cook pines near the start of the Nu’uanu trail, just after the 3-way junction. Unfortunately I have no photos of them, but the trees were large and exotic, with knobby rings around their trunks extending up into the canopy. The trail here was fairly smooth, and tinted deep red. Best of all, this spot was in perpetual shade and remained cool all through the day and night. It was one of the few really runnable sections, but there was always a strong temptation to ease to a stroll here.
Banyan tree. Photo: Mark Tichinel

Somewhere on this second loop – I think it was on the steep, rocky climb back up from the Nu’uanu aid station - the cramps began. They started in my feet, which reacted to any awkward step by attempting to clench themselves into fists. And then they moved up. Lifting my foot high to scramble over a big rock, my entire leg locked up briefly and threatened to stay that way. I’d experienced cramps like this before in warm/humid races and had usually managed to keep things under control, but having them start this early was a concern. I took a salt stick, backed off on the pace and tried to think relaxing thoughts.

Around the same time, I felt hotspots develop on the bottoms of my feet. I never get blisters and didn’t have a plan for dealing with these, so decided to ignore them and hope for the best. That turned out to work pretty well. The pain came and went through the race but never flowered into a real problem.

The second lap took 5:03 – twenty minutes longer than the first, but it seemed quite a bit harder. Starting loop three, I was looking forward to the coconuts. I took a sip of coconut water and grabbed a chunk of coconut meat. This time it didn’t go down so well – somewhere around here is where my stomach troubles began. I ended up meeting my primary goal of a vomit-free race, but it was touch and go for the next 40 miles. Nothing I tried – tums, miso, salt sticks – worked very well, and my pace slowed quite a bit.

Meanwhile, as dark descended, the rocks became increasingly slick with dew. I now remembered getting the idea from prior race reports that splits at HURT tend to be quite positive, and I was beginning to understand why. The cramps and sour stomach made it hard to push, but the darkness and dew were just as big a factor. It was hard to know where it made sense to run. Many sections that had been runnable during the day became treacherous at night, even with a good headlamp. I ended up hiking quite a bit more on loops 3 and 4 than I had on the first two loops.

I generally run without music, other than what’s playing on my internal soundtrack. It’s interesting to find out what tunes will pop into your head in the middle of the night in a 100-mile race, and for me there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. Climbing out of Nu’uanu on lap 3, I found myself silently singing “Love Me Two Times” by the Doors, a song I haven’t heard in years. Dirty, tired, nauseous, in no condition (or mood) to be loved at all, I couldn’t begin to figure out where this had come from. But it did make me chuckle.

At the end of loop 3 (5:55), I was surprised to see Clint at the Nature Center. He told me I was doing great, and right on pace. I think I responded that I was horrified with my splits, and it didn’t look like they were going to improve based on the way I was feeling. After slurping some miso and trying to shovel in a bit of rice I went back out to plod up the root climb.

On the final rock scramble near Manoa Falls, just before turning to the aid station at Paradise Park, I heard someone coming up behind me. It turned out to be Jeff Browning, who was leading the race by an hour at that point. I followed along behind for a minute or so until we reached a set of steps that Jeff bypassed in favor of a root section on the left side that he floated down with perfect ease. After that, he was gone. It was amazing to see how well he was moving after 87 miles of HURT. I quickly gulped more miso at the aid station – the only thing that looked marginally acceptable to my stomach - and slogged slowly back up the switchbacks. I think this was the last real food I consumed – afterward, I just took a gel every couple of hours and sipped on Gatorade. Gary Robbins lapped me just before the pig gate section, and the loop was mercifully over after 6:38.

My provisions for the final loop consisted of two “crack” gels (Hammer espresso). I downed one after the root climb and not long afterward realized that for the first time in quite a while I felt pretty good. The cramps were gone, my stomach was settled (after putting very little into it for the last several hours) and I seemed to have plenty of energy. It was still dark when I hit the switchbacks down to Paradise Park, but I was able to run these better than I had on the previous two loops. Clint surprised me again at the aid station, and I told him I was finally feeling good. He jogged with me up the dirt road as we passed a runner with trekking poles and a Scottish accent who mentioned that I was displacing him from spot #10.

I knew that I hadn’t been passed all day (aside from some back and forth out of aid stations, and of course being lapped by the two front runners), which meant that almost everybody else was having as much trouble holding the pace as I was. But I hadn’t kept track of the standings, and didn’t really care. I hadn’t been in any mood to race. Now, though, feeling better, the idea of top 10 sounded pretty good. I pushed hard up the switchbacks, but kept hearing the clicks of those trekking poles all the way to the top. Promising myself crack gel #2 at Nu’uanu, I pressed on. Reaching the aid station, I filled my bottles quickly and headed back out, deciding to hold off on the gel until I could see how big the gap was. After nine minutes I decided it was big enough and pulled out the crack. Just then, Lindsay (with trekking poles) came into view, and within several minutes a few others close behind.

I ran into Christa and Mark (who was pacing her) near the trail triple-junction. It was nice to see Cleveland friends after not crossing paths all night. Christa was going strong and looked happy. Mark told me later it looked like I’d been hit by a truck. But I still felt good and cruised through the final stretch, completing the loop in 6:15 for a 28:34 finish. I rang the bell, kissed the sign…and then started eating all the food I’d missed during the race. A very kind volunteer made me a quesadilla, and then I grazed on pretty much everything else on the tables.
Ringing in the finish. Photo: Augusto Decastro

I can’t say enough about the volunteers at this race. They were amazing. I didn’t stop for more than a few minutes at any of the aid stations, but every time the volunteers were ready to help with anything I asked for - and suggest things I didn’t know I wanted or needed but actually did.

All of the runners I talked to after the race agreed with me in the moment that we would never run it again. But the next day, I was already thinking about coming back. And I would bet I wasn’t alone.