Sunday, June 7, 2020

A Little Run In The Sea Of Grass

We met in a little dirt, dark parking lot that sat on the line between the mass of humanity that is South Florida to the east and miles and miles of endless swampy Everglades wilderness to the west. It was clear immediately. The special combination of heat and humidity so unique to South Florida had arrived overnight for the first time this year. The thermometer on my dash read 80 degrees, at 4AM. The air was so thick with water you could see it floating by in the one street light down the road offering us a touch of visibility. Today was going to be tough.

The FKT4Heroes 100K Loxahatchee Loop

Katie Dodge, Marco Hilty and I were taking on a 100K loop around the Arthur Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Preserve in Palm Beach County, Florida. We don’t have many official FKTs in Florida, just a smattering here and there. But this loop felt like just the kind of thing to put on the map. Almost exactly 100K in one giant circle. Mostly desolate. Very few opportunities for water. Total, 100% sun exposure if you aren’t lucky enough to get clouds. Crushed gravel and absolutely flat. I wasn’t aware of anyone that had run the full loop, though bikers do take it one with a bit of regularity and I’m certain some intrepid souls have done it on foot before. The idea was not our own. Two running friends had talked about it for some time, but had not had occasion to take it on. The coronavirus life slow-down offered the opportunity. So I began planning, the team to run came together, volunteers to support us materialized like magic (this run doesn’t happen without the incredible help from Kristy Rini Breslaw, Ralph Breslaw and Helena Radshaw), tricky sections of the course were rece’d, the decision was made to try to raise a few bucks for local businesses who would then contribute goods to COVID frontline workers, and the day arrived.

The loop included almost no access to water, though we’d be near Everglades canals for nearly every step. Brackish water filled with alligators and water moccasins does not make for ideal running fluid. There were a couple places that a car could access, and Ralph was to make the trek to those few spots to save us from our empty water bottles and empty bellies. Kristy and Helena were to spend the day on their bikes, providing water in some of the more desolate sections of the loop.

Wildlife would be abundant, yet was unlikely to be spotted. The Everglades is teeming with flora and fauna. Most of it is very shy. Alligators were a given. Snakes were likely. Bobcats a possibility. Panthers are out there, but nearly invisible. Bugs. Birds. Deer. And most dreaded, horse flies that love to bite and couldn’t care less about bug spray.

The Run Begins

Back in that dark, damp, dirt covered parking lot; we met and got ready to start. We targeted a 4AM start time to get miles in before the sun got on us. The entire week, the forecast had called for an overcast day with meaningful chances of rain and thunderstorms. The day before the start, that all changed. Little cloud cover, no rain and the hottest day of the year so far. And it was clearly that. Within 10 minutes of starting, we were drenched as if having run through a shower and our shoes squeaked and squealed with wetness.

Off into the darkness we trotted, nothing but the spot of our headlamps on the dirt trail in front of us. Here and there, the eyes of an alligator or some other animal would light up on the canals to our left and right. A few stars. No moonlight. Little else could be seen. But all along, we could hear animals rustling in the reeds, alligators grunting feet away, frogs croaking their disapproval of our presence. We didn’t belong, and they let us know.

As the first couple hours passed, Kristy and Helena passed us on their bikes. A quick check in with us to make sure we were good, and they were on their way to the first meeting point at about mile 13. Behind them, the first licks of sunlight began to rise in the east. An Everglades sunrise is unique and absolutely remarkable. The humidity does something to the light. It’s just...different.

The miles passed slowly and easily. We ran at a very gentle pace, with regular walk breaks. For Katie, this would be a new distance PR. For Marco, a match of his longest run. I had run longer on several occasions, but had recently fallen into a cycle of DNF’ing many of my long efforts especially in heat. We took it very easy. We drank heavily. Sweat dripped endlessly.

As the sun rose, the humidity began to break just a bit. For about an hour, we’d get to run with a bit of relief from the weather. But the relief brought with it the horse flies. Fortunately, only about 30 minutes of horse fly bites had to be endured, then they disappeared for the rest of the day.

Our First Turn, Our First Aid

We arrived at the first opportunity for aid with Kristy and Helena waiting water and other drinks in hand. We were also greeted by race photographer extraordinaire Chris Thompson who would end up taking some wonderful shots throughout the day. Thank you to Chris! Most photos are of courtesy of Chris.

After we restocked on supplies, we headed back out into the wilderness. This was the first real turn on the course, sending us north after heading mostly west to begin. Kristy and Helena were riding ahead to the first tricky section in seven miles where we would have to head around one of the water management dams and a variety of trail directions.

North we plodded on what would be the least interesting part of the trail. Less a trail and more a dirt road recessed a bit below the water lines, which were held behind some berms to our right. To our left, farmland and an access road to the dam we had just left. This would continue through to the point were we met Kristy and Helena and then beyond.

At some point, we encountered our first true challenge of the day. Someone noticed a stream of water leaking out of Marco’s pack. His brand new water bladder had formed a leak and he was losing water quickly. My handy-dandy Trail Toes blister kit included some bits of tape that we used to close up the hole as best we could. It wouldn’t be watertight, but it slowed the leak. And Marco was able to pinch it off further by placing the bladder upside down. Disaster averted, we continued on.

On the occasion that we saw the Everglades water, we got our first glimpse of the thousands of gators that had been surrounding us all along. They were visible in nearly every body of water. Sometimes just eyes and the tip of a snout. Other times, the full length of their spiny bodies moving slowly and effortlessly through the water. Always, they were aware of us and when we approached, they’d submerge slowly like a submarine in a war movie disappearing into the depths of the swamp. How many were actually out there just below the surface, who’s to say?

On one occasion, we passed a small pond just to our left. I noticed a little baby gator, no more than 18 inches long. We stopped and saw that there were dozens of tiny baby alligators swimming in this small pond. Then, with clarity of mind, Katie suggested that perhaps the mother gator was lurking nearby and might be less than happy with us so close to these little ones. We continued on quickly.

The day was heating up. We praised glory when a small cloud would cover the sun. We lamented the beating of the rays when the cloud would move on to save some bikers up ahead instead of us. We drank way more fluids than had been anticipated.

The Boat Ramp

After some time, we arrived at the boat ramp stop. This was nearly the midpoint of the loop and our first opportunity to really resupply from stuff we had left with Ralph the day before. We took a nice, long break here to fully refuel and repack. Ice bandanas were loaded with as much ice as they could hold. Food was slammed down. Shoes were changed (though I didn’t touch my feet because they were feeling wonderful.) Marco’s wife arrived with a new bladder for his pack. A few minutes to just sit in the shade and prepare for more heat.

Then we were off again, now heading west on the prettiest portion of the course. Large bodies of water on either side of us with fish jumping and dozens of gators constantly visible. Birds everywhere. A wonderful seven mile jaunt west. I was feeling so good and strong, though I noted that I really wasn’t eating enough. But my legs, they had just warmed up at this point. Things were going great.

After this seven mile run to the west, we turned north and back toward home down Flying Cow Road in Wellington. This would be the one portion of the day off the trails and on road. There is a trail that completes the loop, but there is frustratingly a fence across the trail with no way around it! One can access the trail up that that fence from either side, making it rather useless. But it did force us onto the road for about seven miles. That said, the asphalt offered a nice change of pace, more efficient than the dirt trail.

Somewhere along the previous seven west miles, my major meal of the day had burst open in my pack and run down my back. It was a light brown, baby diarrhea colored thing (actually a Spring Wolf Pack) and Marco asked if I had poo’d my pants. For the remainder of the run, I’d be known as “Poopy Pants”, perhaps my new trail name. It never dawned on me that now I had also missed out on the 400 calories I had planned to eat in that meal.

In the middle of the road stretch at the Wellington Environmental Park, we connected with Kristy, Helena and Ralph again. This was another opportunity to refill, access to a bathroom, even a water hose to spray off with (though the water was too warm to offer much relief.) It would be 13 miles from here until we saw them again.

The road became a dirt road. The dust from passing cars a challenge. Finally, the dirt road led to access back onto the levee system and our old familiar trail at about mile 42. Around this same time, I realized I hadn’t been eating or drinking. For how long, I couldn’t tell you. But my bottles were mostly full, one of my largest calorie sources was smothered across my back side, and my pockets were still too heavy with other food. Katie also began to suffer, needing to walk slower on the walking portions due to discomfort, but running strong on the running sections.

Finally, realizing I was holding Marco and Katie back, I told them I was going to walk for a bit longer to try to cool down and get in some more water. Then my old heat nemesis became apparent. I hadn’t been eating or drinking because I hadn’t been processing what was already in my stomach. My belly was bloated and distended and I was full of stuff just sitting there. Marco and Katie would pull ahead, then I’d reel them back in. Back and forth for a few miles. Finally, I was reduced to just a walk while they continued their steady progress. I knew I didn’t want to hold them up. I decided I would walk to the next opportunity for aid, about 4 miles away, and see if they were still there and see if the slower pace allowed me to process food and water.
A quick side note: I’ve never figured out heat and nutrition. Literally, 100% of my long efforts in heat have ended up with my stomach shutting down. In a 50K, I can force my way through to the end. Longer than that, the hydration and calorie deficit has led to a hole I can’t dig out of. I may simply not be built for Florida running.

Back to the loop, I could continually see Marco and Katie ahead. They slowly crept away, but occasionally would drift back toward me. But it was clear. I was not improving and would be a weight holding them back from finishing. Could I walk it in? Probably, but I wasn’t even sure of that. I hadn’t had any meaningful food or drink in a couple hours and the day had just gotten hotter and hotter. The only decision I had to make was whether to tell Katie and Marco I’d be dropping or to not tell them so that the decision did not weigh on them. Kristy showed up on her bike and slowly pedaled back with me to the final aid stop at about mile 50. My day was done. My DNF habit further reinforced.

Bednars and Beyond
While my run was ending, the day and the FKT attempt was not yet finished! I arrived at Bednars to find Marco and Katie still there resting and waiting for me. I shared that I was done, but that I was so excited for them to make this thing happen. It will be up to one of them to share the story of those final 12 miles.

However, I have some final thoughts to share on this loop and attempt. First, while disappointed that I couldn’t accompany them, it was the right decision and I am truly happy that Katie and Marco toughed out an extreme day to finish this loop and to hopefully put the FKT on the map officially! Katie was clearly in real agony when she left Bednars, yet she continued on without a second thought and without much complaint. Marco was devoid of really any complaint the entire day, just a stoic athlete moving forward through it all. Second, we raised more money than a thought we would, and I’m so happy to help our great local Fleet Feet DelrayBeach running store and the frontline workers they’ll be able to give shoes to.

Katie and Marco did push through to the finish in 14 hours, 5 minutes and 18 seconds. The FKT has been ratified making thisthing official! Marco cursed me out (a little) at the end for the idea. Katie sat miserably and quietly in the trunk of her car after finishing. I have a feeling they’re both feeling a significant sense of accomplishment today, several days later.

The last 12 miles, from Katie’s perspective

Going into the last 12 mile stretch felt automatic. There's something magical that happens to most ultra runners, once you surpass the 26.2 mark for the first time, your mental capacity shifts somehow and 10 miles don't feel long, 20 miles don't feel long and even when things do start feeling long they just go by fast and you are not feeling as miserable getting to the next milestone on any given run. This was definitely the case for me.

Having Marco to run with was nice, as we kept coming up with different strategies to just get to the next mile. First, Marco had the idea to jog for as long as we could until too uncomfortable/hot. That got us about 2 and 1/2 miles in. At that point, we were entering the 50s. I looked back and couldn't believe where the miles went.

Then, we went back to our go-to strategy of walking every half mile. In my head, I tried to do four rounds of run/walk before stopping to stretch my screaming hips and calves. Each half mile took forever, and yet I was always surprised when a few miles went by.

With about maybe 4 miles left, I was stretching every mile. The heat did not bother me, but this run was a good reminder that I needed more time on my feet. Muscle fatigue/tightness was my limiting factor throughout the day.

When we hit the last three mile stretch of paved trail, we decided to run faster just to mix up the feeling in our legs. We ran a strong mile at 10 minute pace, when our cyclist friend Rick joined us to push us home. After some walking and another stretch break, it was time for one more push. Marco kept reminding me that everyone was waiting for us! So we started the last mile push back to the finishing point.

It was so cool having more people involved throughout the day than originally planned. It helped keep us accountable and prepared for each section of the trail. Additionally, it was the major factor in getting me past my "comfortable" ultra range of 30 to 40 miles. 

Photo courtesy of Rick Slifkin
Unless noted otherwise, photos courtesy of Chris Thompson and Chris Thompson Visuals

Thursday, August 22, 2019

#runninglifelessons: Complicating The Simple

I do it all the time. Oh man, do I do this all the time. Take something simple and make it really complicated. This is something so easy to do when running, when racing, when training. It's also an easy trap to fall into all over life.

This connected again recently when I began to think about my training plan for the Jacksonville Marathon early next year. First, I wrote out a general plan by hand on a single sheet of paper. It was simple. The date of the race. The date I wanted to start a training plan. Some goals. A basic weekly training pattern. A few shoes I wanted to consider for race day. And a couple shorter training races. That's it. Nice and simple.

And then came step two, the beginning of complicating. I had laid out that I wanted to run two weekly workouts, or runs with a specific purpose at race pace or faster. But which coaching philosophy should I use for those workouts? Daniels, Tinman, Lydiard, and on and on and on...

And how would I determine my target paces for those workouts and for the Sunday long run? Use my last race finish? Or use a VDOT table? Or an online calculator? And on and on and on...

And then came the Google Sheets training spreadsheet. Every run or two for every day for every week for the next 18 weeks. Each run with a target pace, with the exact number of intervals, with the feel for the workout, with the rest between each interval. Every tempo run with an exact distance, a target pace. 126 days, about 160 runs, laid out as if to program a machine. And on and on and on...

And I was just getting ready to start thinking about race nutrition options to consider (Gatorade, Maurten, Sword, nutella bacon sandwiches?), when...BOOM, it hit me that I was falling deeply into the complexity trap when all I really needed was that darn first sheet I had written down at the very beginning! That first sheet had everything I needed 20 weeks away. And it had just about everything I needed to develop my daily running plan on that day in the moment.

I'm really prone to this complicating trap in running, but also in other life matters. Thinking about buying something kind of expensive? I know what I want, but I better list out options and prices and potential discounts in a spreadsheet.  I need to nail down every detail even though I know only a few items will really matter in a purchasing decision. Unnecessary complexity.

Preparing for a trip? Oh lordy...things are really going to go overboard. Checklists, overpacking, double and triple checking the overpacking. Realizing I'm mispacked, unpacking and doing the entire thing again. Unnecessary complexity.

Heck, even writing in this here blog. I want to storyboard longer pieces and mix and scramble things. I want to edit once and twice and three times. (Actually, I hate editing, but feel like I should do that.) I want to scour Unsplash and add dozens of perfect photos to even a 100 word entry. And I've done these things in the past. Unnecessary complexity. Really, I just need to sit down, bang out a few words, maybe read it over once (I mean, who's really reading anyway), and push the "Publish" button. Simple.

Complicating the simple seems to be a hobby of mine. In running, it seems to be a hobby of a whole lot of people. Running, like so many things, is actually really simple. One foot in front of the other over and over and over again.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Deep and Utter Disappointment

Yesterday and today I ran for the first time since Never Summer 100K. Three weeks without a step run. Three weeks intended to heal some lingering injuries. Three weeks designed to improve my health.

I have been dealing with an injury issue that I can't resolve. It first cropped up in the summer of 2017 and has stuck around since then. First, a pinch in the left hip that then spread to the lower abdomen and groin. I've seen my primary care physician and an orthopedic sports medicine specialist and a physical therapist and a chiropractor. I've had X-rays and MRIs and injections and range of motion tests. The issue has been impossible to nail down. A torn hip labrum. An adductor strain. A psoas strain. Severe inflammation.

It has been extremely frustrating. The issue doesn't prevent me from running. I've raced two marathons, run a third for fun, race two 50Ks and Never Summer all with the injury present. I've run around 7000 training miles. I can run. And usually I can do exactly what I set out to do. But sometimes the injury really fires up and I can't run intervals the way I'd planned to. Or I have to stop several times during a long run because the pain manifests as pressure similar to the urge to poop. Or I can't walk up a set of stairs the next morning due to hip soreness. But mostly I can run, so I just continue running.

These three weeks without running were intended to really give whatever this unidentified injury is a good solid rest. If it truly was just a matter of sever inflammation, three weeks should largely help resolve that. Psoas or groin strains should feel a lot better. Three weeks is quite a bit of rest. I should feel meaningful improvement in the injury, at least for a while until the miles pile up again.

So, yesterday I headed out for my first run with high hopes. Not high hopes that it would be a good run. There was no chance after three weeks of no activity other than some yoga every other day (really tough stuff for me, but not aerobic running fitness) that the run was going to feel good. And it was a ragged mess, struggling to make it through a bit more than five miles. No surprise. But there was a surprise. My groin was tight. My abdomen became aggravated immediately. My hips unhappy. I wrote it off to first-day-back gunk and moved on.

Today I went out to run longer. Still a bit of a mess. My legs screamed at me by five miles in. Evidently, the yoga's really been doing a number on my quads (perhaps an answer to my "how to prepare quads for downhill running question!") But the groin, abdomen and hips were also super unhappy. I was immediately right were I had been a month ago. It's like I'd not taken a single day off. No improvement, none.

I was met with deep and utter disappointment. How could three weeks of total rest not improve this at all? How could I immediately be back in the same place I was before? It doesn't make sense. Just as nothing about this injury has made sense.

So I'll continue to blunder through. Mostly able to run what I want to run. Mostly able to train the way I hope to train. And next time I think about taking time off, I may simple ignore the impulse because, why?

Thursday, August 15, 2019

#runninglifelessons: Practice Over Mastery

I think I'll call these little life lessons learned while running Running Life Lessons. Even better, #runninglifelessons for a bit of cheesy hashtag absurdity. Very creative stuff, I know.

This week's anecdote is something that's struck me over and over in life, and a lesson I fail to really grab on to. It just slips away and getting through takes over. It's particularly evident in running, but just as true everywhere else, I think.

Practice Over Mastery (And Over Surviving)

I recently sat down to start writing out a training plan for the Jacksonville Marathon. Jacksonville is going to be my next (and hopefully last) attempt to run a marathon in under 3 hours. 3 hours will be fast for me, fast for many people, and completely and entirely pedestrian relative to the true fast people...a topic for another time.

Anyway, as I began to write the plan out, it struck me that this plan really wasn't all that different than my last race plan nor the one before or any other. It was made up of the same pieces basically put together in the same order. Run six days a week, maybe some doubles, a total of about nine training bouts per week. One of those runs is hard and fast intervals, often at a track. Another is run at a tempo around my target race pace or a bit faster. One is a long 35KM run. Everything else is just some jogging around with some strides here or there, maybe a few hills sprints. But just running.

It's the same structure I used for my first marathon, for the Boston marathon, for the Georgia Death Race, for Never Summer. Little things were tweaked here or there, maybe some extra hill work or stairs, but really the same thing.

It's practice. Every day, every week, every month; practicing the same things. Practicing pace, practicing being comfortable with discomfort, practicing the discipline of lacing up the shoes and walking out there door each day. There's no mastery involved. There's no "Hey, I've figured this out!" moment. Just more and more practice to hopefully be a bit better than yesterday.

And I think that's true everywhere. I know there's no mastering my profession. I know this, yet have a habit of pursuing and hoping for mastery, or worse, thinking I've kind of attained it. I haven't, not by a long shot. Instead, each work day should be viewed as another day to practice that profession, to get just a bit better than previously. Each day should include a deliberate goal to improve something, not just to show up and do the job, not just to make it through another day, not to determine I've figured it all out and now get to coast along happily meandering toward retirement.

And it's true personally. Instead of surviving everything that life throws my way, but actually trying to get a bit better at life each day.

And it's small, micro-improvements. In running, you don't even notice them. Today's run feels a lot like yesterday's run which feels not all that different than the run three months ago. Then, one day you just try running a bit faster than you did before or a bit farther or something a bit more challenging (12,000 feet high in the mountains, perhaps!), and you can do it and it's not too bad and you have improved and the practice has paid off. Professionally, you don't even have a race or a pace to test yourself. You just notice one day that ideas flow more easily or you communicate a bit more clearly or dots connect that didn't used to. In life, I don't think there's any benchmark at all, just faith that a little improvement is a good thing.

Screw mastery. Just keep practicing, in whatever it is you're doing. The challenge for me is remembering this lesson and then practicing practicing. I'll keep practicing.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

JAX Marathon Training Plan

What the heck. I'm using this space again anyway. Might as well just put all my running and fitness thoughts here, as meaningless as they are to anyone else and as self-absorbed as they may seem. At least it will help me rebuild the habit of regular writing even if trite and low value stuff.

Prior to Never Summer, I had decided to take the month of August off of running entirely. I hadn't taken a serious pause in a couple years at least and have had some lingering mini-injuries. A month off certainly wouldn't hurt things. I've been faithful to that commitment so far and haven't run a mile since Never Summer. But I'm getting the itch to get moving again, and the yoga I've been using to do something just doesn't serve the same need for discipline daily running does.

So yesterday I decided to start working on a training plan for the Jacksonville Marathon, my next (and final) attempt to run a marathon in under 3 hours. I know, both not a truly fast marathon time and also quite fast for the vast majority of runners. Always a funny place to be in.

The training plan begins to develop:

Eek! That's a lot of expensive shoes to try!
This didn't scratch the running itch. I won't make it through August. But it did help me not run today and firm a commitment to stay off the road until next Saturday. 6 additional days is a heck of a lot better than 0.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Running Is Life

What an aggrandizing, over-zealous title. But there's truth to that title in a small way.

For some time, I've realized that in every running race there are these small moments that are microcosms of big life themes. Lessons learned in only minutes that could take years to understand in the broad context of a life. For some time, I've thought about writing about them. But it's always felt like self-puffery, like an excuse to tell you about my latest running exploit, like a way to brag just a bit more. And perhaps there's some truth to that.

Despite that, I'm going to try writing about some of these moments anyway. For one, I've missed writing and really want to begin again. For another, I want to put these moments to words to help my own learning of the lesson taught. And finally, just maybe someone else will get something out of it other than "man, this guy likes to talk about himself."

Some of these will be small, little, almost nothings. Others will hit on really big themes. Some will even appear as trite banalities such is "like life, running is about a journey and not just reaching a goal" although I'll do my best to minimize those.

So I invite you to join along as I share one thing learned while out running and racing that applies broadly to life. I'll try to do this weekly for as long as the ideas strike me. I'd love to hear your feedback, if something really resonates or if you think I'm way off base. And I'll begin with a short vignette from the Never Summer 100k ultramarathon this week.

Lesson: They're Just Regular People

This thought has been swirling in my mind for some time, but it really connected with me as I climbed up the steep incline to the summit of North Diamond Peak at the Never Summer 100k race. The idea is a simple one, but a bit shocking, as well.

Growing up, I'd flip through National Geographic magazine and read other stuff describing explorers of the world, of wilderness, of exotic locations. People trekking to the north pole, climbing Everest, diving to the bottom of the ocean. We would occasionally drive to Switzerland for family vacations, and there would always be a TV channel in the hotel playing video of a mountaineering expedition climbing some alpine ridge to summit a mountain. These were fascinating stories of exploration and adventure to me.

In my mind, the people that did these things became superhumans with born abilities that the rest of us did not have and could not cultivate. They were other and better than the rest of us. They could do things the rest of us could only dream of doing. They were unique and special.

Thunderheads loom above as we climb high up Diamond Peak
As I climbed North Diamond Peak with a line of other racers, it really struck home with me how wrong that thinking had been. Here I was, just a regular guy in a line of regular people, after just over four years of meaningful running training; climbing an incredibly steep mountain summit with a thunderstorm only inches over our heads to then run several miles along an exposed alpine ridge. And this was just a short piece of the entire race for that day!
There's absolutely nothing superhuman about me, no unique born abilities that others don't have, nothing special. As I looked around at the others climbing with me, I suspected many of them would say the same about themselves. Sure, some people may have been born with a bit more natural talent at running and hiking and climbing, some were bigger and others smaller, some stronger and more muscular and others skinnier and more lithe, but everyone was pretty much a "regular" person and certainly not a superhuman.

As my racing adventures have become more adventuresome, from early local races to now full-blown high elevation mountain ultramarathons, this idea that most of these people aren't superhuman has been percolating. Of course, there are some outliers at the very top of any sport who have extraordinary abilities, but I bet even those people are more regular than not. There is nothing special about me, except I did some training and signed up! It's both a liberating thought and a frightening one.

The question out of the lesson then is, what other things have I decided I could not do simply because I had the belief that those things were reserved for superhumans? Maybe something professionally? Perhaps another athletic endeavor? Maybe something in day to day life? What have I passed up that I really should try taking on? I almost think it's exactly those things that I've attributed to "only for superhumans" that are exactly what my heart desires to pursue, but fears to do so.

What about you?

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

2019 Never Summer 100k - A Tale Of Two Races

I wasn't going to write this race report. I really wasn't. I had decided my race report writing was self-indulgent blathering about materially selfish endeavors. Then I had another runner ask for a write up. Shortly thereafter, I listened to a podcast where the guest discussed the privilege of being able to visit these places, and the importance of sharing about these places so few of us ever get to experience. In this person's mind, it would be selfish to not share with those who do not or cannot visit. Serendipity. So, now I've written a self-indulgent bit of blathering about my materially selfish endeavor.

I recently completed the Never Summer 100K in Gould, CO. It's a newer race in the remote wilderness of the northern Colorado Front Range. At the pre-race dinner the night before the start, even Coloradans discussed how few of them knew about these mountains before they ran Never Summer. And almost everyone I met had run in a previous year and said the same thing...they had to come back because of who beautiful and special the course was.

The course trail features just about everything one could imagine in a mountain ultra: single track through thick forest, snow fields, alpine ridges (WOW! I need more of these!), alpine lakes, boulder fields, endless creek crossings, mud (and mud and mud and some deeper mud), inclines of what felt like 89 degrees climbed on all fours (probably about 40 degrees), declines equally steep, portions of trail where there was no trail at all, a bit of road, some jeep trails. Oh, and some serious elevation for a lowlander, five crossings well above 11,000 feet. Everything.


The logistics for this race are phenomenal. It's in true wilderness. No hotels anywhere nearby. All available accommodations something short of rustic. Camping is really it. Camping in a tent, a camper, a car or a cabin. Running water...well, there's snow melt flowing in the nearby creeks. But the logistics are phenomenal. The race allows you to book a car camping site at the start line right on Ultrasignup. The drive from Denver International Airport to the Gould Community Center is gorgeous. The race hosted a potluck dinner the night before, a dinner after finishing the race, and a breakfast the morning after the race. We had no food to plan other than a dish to pass at the potluck and a pre-race breakfast. Remote wilderness, but so easy.

I had traveled to this race with one of my training partners, Eddy. Eddy's a hell of an ultramarathon runner, much faster than me. It was also his first mountain ultra. And it was my first high elevation ultra. Georgia Death Race had more elevation to climb and descend, but never crossed 6,000 feet. Neither of us had any idea what to expect from the Never Summer course and elevation. Would we be able to climb? Would we even be able to breath?

Race Number One

Race morning was a bit chaotic. Eddy and I woke up around 4AM, nearly a half hour before our alarms. We had both had the same thought, being so close to the starting line should make getting ready a breeze. We barely made it there. I forgot to brush my teeth. Eddy just made it to the start out of the port-a-potty. A poorly executed start.

It was cold, but not overly cold. A long-sleeve shirt was enough to stay relatively warm in the mass of people at the start line. The sun rose as we waited for the race to head out. The racers were the fittest looking bunch I've seen at an ultra. Before I knew it, we were off.

The first two miles ran along a wide, gravel path with a very gentle incline. It was a great, easy warm up and the pack stayed close together. Late in the second mile, we turned up our first climb of the day, to the top of 7 Utes Mountain. And it was the climb you can't practice in South Florda or really anywhere on the east coast. 3 miles upward, climbing every step, each quarter mile a bit steeper than the last. And a theme for the day would develop.  About half way up, we stopped to remove a layer of clothing as we really heated up from the climbing. The view during that stop gave us our first glimpse of the endless mountain vistas we'd experience all day.

Climbing 7 Utes

Layer stripped, and it was time to start climbing again. The trail was still relatively wide, not a congested conga line up a narrow trail like the beginning of Georgia Death Race. It was hard work, but very comfortable. Near the top of 7 Utes, we encountered snow for the first time. SNOW! I had hoped all along we would have a little snow to really give us that mountain feeling. Then we were above the tree line and on to the 7 Utes summit at 11,478 feet.

7 Utes Summit
And the wind was cold, very cold, above the tree line with no protection. I had left my long sleeve shirt on and felt quite comfortable. Eddy had dropped to a singlet and was clearly a touch uncomfortable. We took a few moments to absorb the beauty of where we were. It was truly incredible. In every direction, rolling hills and craggy peaks and snow covered blocks of granite.

After a few quick photos - I had promised myself to make time for photos while being in this incredible space - we got moving again to not get too cold. And we were off for our first big descent of the day down the other side of 7 Utes. It was steep and frightening and went on and on. These descents are what I feared most. I have yet to find a way to train for these quad crushing downhills in flat Florida. Sure, a treadmill on decline gives some of that stimulus, but it's nothing like a 30 degree decline with rocks and roots and trees to avoid, fear of tripping and face-planting forcing me to put the brakes on. I had no problem climbing up with the locals, a fact all day long. But the downhills were another matter as runner after runner would pass by easily gliding down the descents.

Descending 7 Utes - Absolutely Beautiful Views While Crushing Quads
Off 7 Utes, we had our first relatively mild section of running. Small rollers and a climb or two around the mountainsides with views of the Crags eventually brought us to our first alpine lake, Lake Agnes. During this section of running, Eddy and I agreed we had been working a bit harder than we had hoped and decided to back off a bit. I had come into the race wanting to enjoy the day so long as I finished under 23 hours, the time required for a Western States lottery ticket. We were way under that pace and could tell we'd been putting in quite a bit of effort.

As we dropped down to Lake Agnes, another theme developed...spectators. I had never been at an ultra with an actual number of spectators. But here they were. Dozens of people who were camping around Lake Agnes or had hiked up to find us, cowbell ringing and encouragement and cheering echoing throughout the valley. How very cool. Incredible mountain views and heavy encouragement ringing from every direction. And then the lake came into view...

Lake Agnes - Incredible to think this sits at 10,500 feet
We continued around Lake Agnes for a bit and onto our first scree trail of the day followed by our first snow crossing. I had been looking forward to a snow crossing, but was surprised to find this one on a steep downhill. The two runners in front of me slid down it on their shoes just as if they were wearing skies. I decided to try the same, certain I'd end up on my rump in a moment. To my surprise, I safely found myself at the far end of the snow still on my feet. Off the snow, we headed onto a jeep trail and eventually into the Michigan Ditch aid station.
Heading toward Cameron Pass

I grazed and refilled bottles with VFuel at the aid station waiting for Eddy to arrive, who had fallen a bit back somewhere along the way. Eddy took just a few moments to eat some food, then we were on our way into our second big climb of the day. A roughly 1,500 foot climb brought us into high elevation again at around 11,300 feet.

Then we headed down into our first really significant descent of nearly 3,000 feet and a few miles into Cameron Pass and the Diamond aid station at mile 17.2. Diamond aid station is an important stop, the final aid station before the climb to the high point of the race, North Diamond Peak. Eddy and I took some time here. I gorged on salted avocado quarters and bacon which I would seek out all day, plus some gummi bears and other sugary goodness. We both cleared our shoes of dirt that had accumulated from several small creek crossings. Eddy dug through a drop bag to determine if he had anything he wanted to carry along. Then we headed out knowing what lay ahead was going to be a real doozy, and the most beautiful part of the entire course.

We started out along a bit of dirt road, then spent a short while running down Highway 14 before heading into a broad trail that went up and up and up. During this climb, it was my turn to stop and change out of a layer of clothing due to overheating. Of course, I knew the likelihood was that the wind above treeline might again be cold, but the day had gotten warm. After a couple miles of climbing on this broad trail, we turned onto a narrow bit of single track through dense trees that appeared to go straight up. Every step was a fight and the trail became steeper and steeper, eventually demanding that we zig zag left and right while going uphill to create our own switchbacks. And, through the trees, we could see people appearing no larger than ants way up on an exposed ridge line above to the North Diamond Peak summit, the high point of the race.
My attempt to capture the steepness of this climb
The barely-there trail continued up and out of the tree line. Unbelievably, as we came out of the trees, the trail seemed to disappear entirely and became even steeper! The summit was now visible, but looked a mile away. Step after step, we fought up the steep incline, Eddy dropping to all fours and me leaning heavily on my trekking poles. All around us, other racers fought and huffed and swore as they willed their legs up another step. Slowly, but steadily, the summit got closer. A quick break on a rock outcropping for some nutrition and photos before the final ascent was called for. The scenery was a thing out of this world
Just leaving the tree line

Nutrition up high

Crags and peaks everywhere

Finally, we headed for the summit. We could now see the expressions on the faces of those who had reached the top. The wind was sharp and cold, but the difficult climbing kept us plenty warm. And then, less than 15 feet from the summit, the booming crack of thunder rocked the entire mountain range. The cloud cover hung just feet above the summit which was just feet above our heads. We continued up only to be met by a mountain rescue ranger running off the summit telling us to side hill the summit for our safety. More thunder rumbled and rolled as we worked our way around the summit. I'm certain summiting would have been much easier and quicker than this side shuffle along the edge of an extremely steep mountaintop. But the thunder was more than a touch frightening and we had no desire to defy very forceful orders from the rescue people. We did not get to summit the high point of the entire course at 11,826 feet, but taking on a thunder storm on an exposed ridge line at high elevation seems to make up for those 15 missed feet as far as experiences go.

Having worked our way around North Diamond Peak summit, we encountered a massive alpine ridge line. For what seemed to be miles in front of us lay a completely exposed set of peaks and saddles. And along the entire ridge were runners fading off into the distance. We'd be descending and climbing 3 or 4 of these peaks before we next got to drop out of this high elevation. And the thunder kept cracking the entire way, although the darkest clouds seemed to fall behind us after a bit.
The Ridge Line!

On this ridge line, I also realized that I had cell phone connection. I had been trying to text my wife a Happy Anniversary message all morning, but the message would not send despite some moments of apparent signal. I tried something new up here, a quick FaceTime call. Lo and behold, I was suddenly face to face with my wife and son while hiking across an alpine ridge line at 11,500 feet in utter remote wilderness! A few moments for anniversary wishes, a few more to show my son and daughter the scenery and I was back focused on the task at hand, but with the weight removed of not having been able to reach my wife on our anniversary.

The first of dozens of creek crossings
After this alpine ridge line, we headed off the Never Summer mountains stopping briefly at the Montgomery aid station for more avocado and bacon and then down to 9,500 feet. As we headed back into the tree line, it began to rain. Just a drizzle for now and nicely cooling, as the day was warmer at lower elevation. Then the rain became a bit harder. Finally, the rain turned to sleet and hail and was absolutely freezing. Eddy and I took off. We ran (relatively) hard to stay warm. We kept moving as hard as we could because this rain was cold! For what felt like hours, the freezing rain and hail pelted us. We encountered our first really significant creek crossing with no way to avoid getting knee deep in fresh snow melt water. We were cold. We knew we were cold, but were moving well enough and creating enough heat to cope with it.  And then we arrived at the Ruby Jewel aid station at mail 29.4

The aid station was a scene of carnage. Runners were freezing and not certain how to cope all over the place. Runners in emergency blankets. Runners borrowing clothing from aid station workers. Runners grabbing trash bags or anything else they could find to create makeshift clothing. Runners dropping out, 25 total at this aid station alone, I believe. The volunteers were awesome (true at every aid station), tending to runners, offering hot broth (a life saver!), doing whatever they could to keep runners safe and moving, identifying those who seemed to be in particular trouble and making a challenging situation bearable.

The moment I stopped, I began severely shivering. The long shirt I had removed earlier was soaked, so I quickly put on my thin Salomon jacket instead. Then my gloves, but these were also soaked and only made my hands colder. The jacked helped, but not enough. Fortunately, I had purchased a Rab Xenon X jacket just before the race fearful that it might get very cold at night and had stuffed it in my pack, despite being a bit bulky. It was a lifesaver. I immediately warmed and was able to eat and drink and think straight.

The race directors warned that the upcoming ten miles were some of the most challenging on the course. Particularly remote and rugged trail with a significant climb and no aid for over 10 miles. Eddy and I knew we needed to spend extra time refueling and filling up with liquids here at Ruby Jewel. Eddy had also put on a coat and gloves, and we were fortunate to be warm enough to do what needed to be done at this aid station.

After a good 15 minutes, we headed back out onto the trail. The rain stopped shortly after we left and I was too warm only a few minutes later. And the coat was back off and into the pack. We both hoped for no more rain.

These next 10 miles may have been the most beautiful on the entire course. Single track trail, creek crossings, water falls, valleys with high ridges. The course worked it's way up slowly to our final true high elevation climb, but the steep and aggressive climbs were behind us. We slowly wended our way around various mountainsides consistently gaining elevation. The rain had stopped and the sun shone from time to time. The air was comfortably warm as we met new runners and crossed paths with some we had met earlier. Neither Eddy nor I was in a rush, always resettling on taking it easy.

Kelly Lake Trail

For about four miles we continued up this green lush valley until the entire mountain opened up as we reached the high point of this climb, again well over 11,000 feet. On each side of this open valley were towering peaks and in front and behind us, granite massifs as far as the eye could see. I continued to climb strong, often passing many runners. Par for the course, on short downhill sections I would immediately be passed by those runners again.
A short break on the Kelly Lake trail climb
Eventually, we found ourselves approaching the largest snow field we'd encountered the entire day. We could see runners ahead slowly crossing this snow field, at least the size of a couple football fields. And then, beyond that snow field, Kelly Lake. We had passed several alpine lakes throughout the day, but Kelly Lake was something different. The other lakes were not at nearly this elevation, not above the tree line, not around snow. But here sat Kelly Lake, over two miles in the sky, stretching before us, craggy and rugged mountain peaks on all sides. Just stunning.

We worked our way across the snow field, and discovered that we next had to cross a boulder field for about 100 yards. This might have been fun on another day, without 35 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing in our legs. But on this day, it was a bit torturous, every boulder feeling unstable and legs even more unstable. Slowly we worked across these boulders only to discover other runners 30 yards lower on the boulder field moving very easily. We had missed the easy line and made the job much harder than necessary. Then, as we approached the finish, the first drops of rain began to fall and the sky darkened quickly.

Eddy and I were both concerned. Now we were very high, the wind was very cold, and another rain storm built. This time we were smarter. We quickly stopped and put warmer clothing on and begin moving down the mountain as quickly as we could. The rain picked up as we dropped below the tree line and back into a forest. It poured, a freezing rain again, but we were fortunate to drop elevation quickly and get some help from tree cover. The rain continued for about 15 minutes or so. We dealt with it much better this time and continued on our way.

But the race directors had been correct. This 10 miles went on forever, were extremely rugged, and drained us. Both Eddy and I found ourselves in one of those dark spots that always comes up in an ultra. We were short on calories and short on motivation. But we slowly reached the Clear Lake aid station, which we would visit twice with an out and back up to Clear Lake in between. The report on the race had been that the first 40 miles to Clear Lake aid station were the most difficult, and the 20+ miles thereafter much easier and more runnable. All day, Eddy and I had talked about conserving energy and legs for those final 20 miles. But as we approached Clear Lake, it became clear that we were both suffering. We had survived the elevation without either of us having any severe elevation effects. Both a small headache at different times, but nothing more significant. But the steep downhills and the cumulative climbing had had its toll. Hopefully, the final 20 miles would be easier so we could keep moving decently.

Race Number Two

We approached Clear Lake with a plan to sit down, change socks, regroup and prepare for the easier section of the race. The most difficult of the climbing was done. We wouldn't cross 11,000 feet again. It was time for a reset. Unfortunately, as we arrived at Clear Lake aid station, it was raining again. We decided to not change socks or touch our shoes. Eddy slammed a Red Bull and I ate several salted avocado slices, seriously the best ultra food in the world. Then we headed out for the 2.2 mile climb up to Clear Lake.
Clear Lake...cold, dreary, still impressive

My climbing was still strong and I slowly put a gap on Eddy. I let him know I'd get up to the top of the climb and wait for him there. However, as I reached the top, the rain started again and a cold wind blew in. I decided to continue back down to the aid station, knowing I'd pass Eddy on the way to let him know why I continued.

I moved slowly, really slowly, on the way down. My quads were shot. Somebody, please tell me how to train for trail downhills in Florida! I was about a half mile ahead of Eddy when I passed him on his way up. We spoke momentarily, but both wanted to continue because of the cold. And it was starting to get dark.

Eventually, I reached the aid station and heard something I've never had to worry about at an ultra before...cut-offs. People were discussing the cut-offs at various aid stations and we weren't far off. A new experience for me. We had been taking it easy, but I didn't realize that easy. However, we were now going to get started on the easy part of the course. Smaller climbs, lower elevation, reportedly runnable. Eddy arrived back to the aid station only a few minutes after me, having made up a ton of time on the way down. We got ready to head out into the dropping sun with 8 hours to cover 20 miles for a finish under 23 hours. The cut-off is 24 hours, but a sub 23 hour finish is needed to earn a Western States lottery ticket. It sounded simple and we headed out.

The next 20 miles can be described in one word: mud. Sometimes super slick mud. Other times, knee deep mud. Occasionally, both. Shoe sucking, soul draining mud. Nearly every step of the way for the first 12 miles we dealt with mud. It was slow. It was miserable. It was dark. And it was so muddy. The shoes got heavier. It was not runnable.

During the first 12 miles out of Clear Lake the only item of note other than mud was crossing a high mountain prairie in the dark. As we crossed, we heard loud grunting. It wasn't too close, but it was loud and large. Clearly a moose. We couldn't see it in the dark, but we could hear it snort and grunt evidently unhappy with our presence. And it was frightening. A few miles later, it happened again. This time much closer and much louder and much angrier. This time, I was able to find the moose with my head lamp. Fortunately, it sounded much nearer than it actually was. But this big bull was angry and loud and continued to grunt and warn us to get out of there quickly. There was no incident, but it left both Eddy and me spooked and glad we weren't running alone.

And then, more mud. For miles and miles, we slipped and slid through the mud, looking for any path to avoid even a few steps of it. The aid stations were more frequent now, but it took ages to reach the Canadian aid station and even longer to get from there to Bockman aid station. But we did finally reach Bockman aid station, 8.4 miles from the finish. In Bockman, we were told the mud was over and life would be easier. 23 hours getting closer and closer, hearing the mud was ending was a godsend.

Unfortunately, it wasn't accurate. Sure, the mud was a bit less than previously. And there was a long section on road that was mud free. But probably half of the next 6.2 miles were still covered in slick mud. Also unfortunately, Eddy and I had been speaking less and less as we headed into the night. Not because of frustration with one another, but because we were both in funks and tired. And during a climb in one of these quiet moments, I got out ahead of Eddy. I was on a mission and not paying attention. This was a long, shallow climb. I had put my head down and worked for about 30 minutes without paying attention, passing several other runners along the way. I looked back and saw no headlamps at all. I waited once, and then again later, for a few minutes, but never saw another lamp. Finally, I decided I needed to push on and finish, hoping Eddy had been able to connect with a couple of runners I passed whom we had spent time with earlier.

Over the final four miles, I felt the strongest I had felt for hours. I hiked hard uphill, and ran small sections downhill. I reached the final aid station 2.2 miles from the finish, drank a quick coke cup, and moved on. I tried to run, failed, hiked hard. My headlamp went out, but I refused to stop to change the battery. 23 hours was weighing on my mind (ultra-brain...I had 1.5 hours to go 2.2 flat miles) and I pushed and pushed, using my phone flashlight to light the trail. I saw runners ahead, and then the lights of the finish. I ran the final quarter mile and was done.

22 hours 5 minutes, a good 3-5 hours longer than I anticipated. It had been hard, really very hard. It had been much harder than Georgia Death Race, something I still don't understand.

It had been beautiful, brutal, gorgeous, devastating, and the most remarkable racing experience of my life.

Thank goodness Eddy had been with me. The rain, the mud, the effort, the moose may have been too much for me to deal with alone. Eddy finished about 20 minutes behind me and had connected with some runners we had swapped places with all day, also earning a Western States lottery ticket, his first.

What a race. What a remarkable part of the world. Do this race. Just do it. It's a privilege to get to experience.

Some more photos:

Approaching Kelly Lake

My feet were great despite being wet all day. But I did have one giant blister on the ball of my left foot. I knew it was happening with about 10 miles to go and ignored it, focusing on finishing. That was the right choice.
La Poudre Valley on the drive out
Driving out

Driving out

Driving out

Performed remarkably. Will never be white again.