Trail Monster Running

Visit the official TRAIL MONSTER RUNNING website for information on upcoming group runs, local trails, trail races and more, including the Pineland Farms Trail Running Festival and the Bradbury Mountain trail Running Series.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 DNF Report

I could write a book on how I prepared for the MMT 100, but I’ll try to be brief and just do a little summary. Back in September of last year I had a catastrophic race failure at the Bruiser which left me with an achilles tendon problem that still bothers me 10 months later. Following the Bruiser I faked my way through training for the Stone Cat marathon, had an OK race and then decided I needed to take some time off to recover. I took two weeks off, a few weeks of very light running and then came the lotteries. I was hoping to get into Western States, this was my third consecutive attempt in the lottery, and being in June I’d have a full 6 months to prepare for it.  I also threw my name in for Massanutten, and as luck would have it that’s the one I got into. I was immediately nervous about attempting this race. It was a full month sooner than Western States, so I only had 5 months to train and I felt like I was starting from zero. I was also afraid of the potential for hot/humid weather on race day. Back in 2008 I traveled to Virginia to run the Bull Run Run 50 miler. After training all winter in Maine I found I was ill-prepared for the warm, humid weather of Virginia in the spring. This was going to be a similar situation of doing all my training in cold weather, then traveling south to race.

Starting in December I made a very gradual, cautious increase in my weekly mileage and laid out a training plan that included a lot of snowshoe running and hill work. I put very little emphasis on speed and focused mainly on strength and endurance. The one thing missing from my training was preparation for heat and humidity. In a last minute attempt to get myself ready I started doing hot yoga classes at a local studio about 3 weeks before the race. While I certainly worked hard and sweat a lot during those classes I don’t think they did much to prepare me for the conditions I encountered on race day.

Weekly mileage and time spent running from Stone Cat to the peak of training for Massanutten.

Not surprisingly the weather forecast for race weekend changed on a daily basis leading up to the event, and finally settled on overcast, relatively cool (for Virginia) but very high humidity. It all seemed quite manageable and I felt good going into the race. I was confident in my training and felt that I had a good chance at finishing around 26 hours. I totally geeked-out on previous race stats to come up with a pacing spreadsheet that would help my crew figure out an expected finish time based on my arrival at each aid station. I used this to determine a reasonable time/pace for each section of the race based on previous runners averaged splits. Part of my approach to mentally prepare for a race like this is to go all Rain-Man with data so that the time and distance between aid stations in worked into my brain and I have an easier time breaking the race down into manageable segments rather than focusing on the overwhelming enormity of the event as a whole.

Emma, Mindy and I left on Thursday morning, and crashed at Mindy’s parent’s house in PA that night. On Friday we slept in a bit, went for a short run on the AT then headed down to VA to check in at the race. We met up with fellow Trail Monsters and settled into our sukkah for the night. I was feeling really good about the race, confident in my training and support crew. I knew that there was going to be some hard times ahead, that’s part of any long race, but I wasn’t worried, just anxious to get on with it. I didn’t sleep well, in part due to snoring sukkah-mates, but I never really expect to sleep well before a big event like this. Way too much going on inside my head to get a decent nights sleep.

Up at 2:45 and the team jumped into action. Dressed, coffee, breakfast, bathroom and then a short walk downhill to the start. It was cool and overcast, there was some humidity in the air but not all that noticeable with the cool morning temperature. Focussed, comfortable and confident. There were hugs and handshakes all around and then we set off. 198 runners into the early morning darkness.

The first 4 miles of the race were on paved or dirt road, at a steady but runnable incline gaining about 700 feet. I estimated that I was somewhere in the top 25-30. Was this a good place to be, the right place to be? I felt good. I became aware of the humidity as soon as I started running. I was sweating but I was drinking enough so I wasn’t concerned. I made a quick stop at the first aid station at 4.1 miles to top up my water bottle. It was another 8 miles to the next aid station and first crew access and I wanted to be sure that I had plenty of fluid. After the aid station we turned onto trail and continued to climb another 800 feet or so on some mostly runnable terrain. Every now and then we’d hit a pocket of nasty, technical rockiness, but overall it wasn’t too bad on the way up. At the top of the hill, which was one of the highest points on the course, there was a stretch of relatively flat, but very technical trail that spread the runners out and I found myself running alone for the first time in the race. The course marking seemed a bit sparse and the trail overgrown, and since it was still dark I moved cautiously to negotiate the terrain and continuously look for course markings and the trail itself. By 9 miles the course started to drop, and so did my pace, from 14 to 12 to 10 minute miles!

The sun was coming up and I was nearing the first crew access point, my spirits were high. The final approach to the aid station was down a dirt road and I came in fast, excited to see Emma and Mindy. Based on my arrival time I was on track for a 25:30 finish, only slightly faster than I expected to be, but this was good. I was pretty soaked with sweat already, so I decided to change my shirt, swapped out my single bottle belt for a double and was off. A quick and energizing stop. (27th place)

Next up was a 1000 foot climb, but the terrain was relatively mellow and a lot of it was runnable. It wasn’t even 7AM but I was becoming very aware of the high humidity. The air was thick and wet. My fresh shirt was soon soaked again. I was drinking a lot but had only peed once so far, it was dark and not very plentiful. Mentally I still felt strong so I kept pushing on at a pretty good pace.The climb took a lot out of me, but was followed by a nice long descent and then a relatively flat section of trail that allowed me to move pretty well for a few miles. But then I started feeling nauseous. I had been drinking Odwalla and eating trail mix for the first few hours of the race, but now I couldn’t get anything down without feeling ill. The rest of me was feeling fine, but I started to get concerned about maintaining the necessary caloric intake. When I got to the aid station at 20.3 miles I drank a ginger ale, none of the food at the aid station looked appealing so I grabbed an Ensure from my drop bag and walked out. 4:03 for 20.3 miles. On track for a 26 hour finish, so even though I wasn’t feeling great I was still on pace for my goal time. (29th place)

Soon after drinking the Ensure I started noticing a dull ache in my back which at first I thought was muscular but then realized was probably my kidneys complaining. I was still feeling a bit nauseous and wasn’t able to take advantage of the fact that the next 5 miles was flat or downhill and very runnable. I became very aware of how much sweat was pouring off me, the course was dry but my feet were soaked. I felt like I was drinking as much as my stomach could handle but I was getting worried that I was losing too much through sweat. It wasn’t even 9 AM and I was starting to suffer. The temperature was relatively cool but the air was still and heavy. I started to worry about what was to come, how much hotter was it going to get today? Only 12 more hours until the sun goes down. It was lonely on the trail, the only other runners I saw were ones that passed me and I was unable to keep up with any one of them for more than a few minutes.

At the next aid station, 25.8 miles I sat down for a minute to remove my shoes and shake out the debris. Definitely should have worn gaiters. There was a dog tied to the chair I was sitting in, we got a bit tangled and I got annoyed. There were kids in the woods searching for their other dog who had run off, every time they called his name the dog tied to my chair got more excited and I got more annoyed. At least it was good motivation to get up and move again. 5:08 for 25.8 miles, still on track for a 26 hour finish. (31st place)

The next few miles were a very gradual climb on a rugged dirt road. It should have been quick but was feeling very sluggish. I paused at a small stream crossing and splashed cold water on my face. I wanted to lay in it and float away... the course was great but the humidity was taking all the fun out of it. From dirt road to trail the course got progressively steeper and the climb was really beating me down. The pain in my kidneys was getting more noticeable, my legs seemed less responsive as if there wasn’t enough oxygen coming through the wet air and making its way to where is was needed. I also wasn't able to eat anything without feeling sick, 1/2 a Honey Stinger wafer was about all I managed to get in. This is when the first truly negative thoughts started creeping into my mind, that perhaps I might not be able to finish the race. This wasn’t fun and it was too early in the day to be suffering.

As I made my way along the long, gradual descent to the next aid station, about 1,400 feet down, my state of mind started to improve. Knowing that I was going to see Emma and Mindy helped pick me back up and feel more optimistic about getting through the race, and the downhill running helped physically too. I came into the aid station at 33.3 miles in 6:48, on track for about a 26:30 finish (31st place). Things weren't slipping too far off track, but I knew I needed to take a little extra time here to prep for the section ahead. While there I ate a popsicle, drank an Ensure, received an application of sunscreen and an ice-filled bandanna around my neck.

While the aid station stop was a great boost mentally, as soon as I left the course started another big climb, about 1000 feet over 2.5 miles. At least I had company for this next section, Ken from Toronto caught up to me and we stuck together until the next aid station. My kidney pain became more severe but at least I had a distraction in conversation.

The next aid station was less than 5 miles from the previous, and it was another crew access point, but after that it would be 16 miles before seeing my crew again. I came into 38 miles in 8:04, on track for 26:30 (35th place). I could feel hot spots developing on the balls of my feet so I changed socks and re-applied Hydropel. While doing this my hip flexors started to spasm and cramp. I mentioned to Emma the pain I'd been having and she confirmed that it was my kidneys. I'd been dealing with this for about 4 hours and I wasn't convinced it was going to go away. I peed for the third time while at this aid station, and just like the previous times it was very dark and not much of it. No obvious sign of blood like at Traprock, but not good considering the amount of fluid I was consistently taking in. Before heading out I switched over to my Nathan Hydration pack and also grabbed a handheld bottle. It was only 3 miles to the next aid station but then 9 to the one after that, and another 4 before I'd see my crew again.

The three mile stretch of road should have been fast but I had nothing. 9:38 for the first downhill road mile, then much slower as a few ups got in the way. I "ran" for a while with a guy from Delaware who was suspiciously dry. He had a small damp patch on the back of his shorts, but the dude didn't seem to be sweating at all. Meanwhile I'm leaving a streak of sweat down the middle of the road and sloshing in my shoes. This immediately pissed me off, and his attempts to make friendly conversation were not welcome. It wasn't his fault, I was just getting into a bad place mentally and despite his efforts it wasn't helping to pull me up. Shortly before the next aid station he pulled away and I was a bit relieved to be on my own, seeing how good he was looking was making me dwell on how bad I knew I looked. 8:53 when I came into mile 41.1, now on track for a 27 hour finish (the extra time I took at the previous aid station set me back to 43rd place).

Nasty climbs, but plenty of runnable sections too
From the aid station it was a 3 mile climb with about 1,300 feet of gain and I don't think I ran a step. With every foot I climbed up my head went deeper down into dark place. The air was suffocating, sweat was streaming off me at a rate I couldn't keep up with, I was nauseous and couldn't eat anything. How could I ever continue? Guilt began to set in as I thought about all the people I would be letting down if I didn't finish the race, but I wanted nothing more than to stop. I came here to run, but this was an embarrassment.

Eventually I stopped sweating. This was not good. I've dealt with heat exhaustion a few times before, was this a symptom of heat stroke? The strange thing was that it wasn't even hot, just insanely humid.

After an eternity I finally reached the top of the climb, but then the terrain became so technical I couldn't get into a running rhythm. I shuffled along the ridge tying to let myself cool down. It wasn't really working, but I did start to sweat again. I thought more about dropping but I didn't want to give in just because things weren't feeling right on the inside. Maybe if I took a dive into the rocks I'd mess myself up bad enough that I'd have a good, visible excuse for not continuing. Of maybe if I just run full out, balls to the wall until I get to the next aid station I'll pass out when I get there and they'll pull me from the race. There must be some way to end this where I'll have something to blame. I need an excuse that's better than "I'm just not feeling it today."

Things didn't get much better once the course started downhill. Lack of fueling left me feeling weak and I didn't have the strength to bomb down the 1,300 foot descent as I would have liked. My attempts to run lead to shooting pains in my abdomen, bad enough that I had to stop and sit for a few minutes at one point.

At the next aid station I sat down and drank some warm broth. It was the only thing I found appealing even though it was warm. I was in a daze, staring blankly at the ground. Almost half way through the race. 50 miles done in 11:19. 53+ to go. I was on track for a 27:15 finish if I were to continue on a track of "normal" slow down, but I was falling behind at a faster rate than normal. Besides, what reason did I have to believe that things would improve? The next stretch was 4 miles of pretty mellow dirt road, maybe it could get better.

Not long after I started running again the shooting abdominal pains returned and were bad enough to cause me to walk on multiple occassions. My road running pace slowed from 11 to 12 to 13 minutes per mile. If I can't even run on a gently downward sloping dirt road how can I expect to tackle the mountains that still lie ahead. I'd completed 5 of the 11 major climbs of the race and felt like it was killing me. I was done. I made up my mind that I was going to drop when I got to the next aid station at 54 miles.

12:10 for 54 miles, on track for a 27:30 finish if you were to believe my pace chart, which I didn't. Emma and Mindy were there cheering as soon as they saw me coming along the road. I wanted so badly to make them proud but I was suffering in ways I hadn't suffered before. I told them: "I think I have to stop. This is bad." I sat in my chair and cried for a minute. They brought me food and drinks and comforted me. They did all the right things. We talked it through, I got up and walked around. I drank and ate and drank some more. I peed and it was starting to look better. We talked about continuing with the race, the next section was 9.9 miles starting with a 1,500 foot climb. I couldn't do it alone. By now it was 4:30 in the afternoon, pacers could join at 63.9 miles or at 6:00 PM, whichever came first. If I waited until 6 then Mindy could run the next section with me, and then Emma would be there to see me through the rest of the race. But that's such a long time to wait. I ate and drank and walked around some more. I was starting to feel a lot better. Maybe I'm not done afterall.

We talked to Karen who was crewing for Dima. I told her I couldn't go on alone and she suggested I wait for Dima to come in and and we could run the next section together. I liked this idea. I'm back in the game! I got changed into clean, dry clothes and continued to eat and drink. I felt so good I contemplated leaving before Dima came in, but continued to wait to be sure I was feeling as good as possible. Dima arrived around 5:00 and Karen tended to his needs. He walked over to me and said "I hear you want to suffer with me." That's right.

The best part about my hour-long break is that it allowed me to get my head back into a better place. I got rid of all the negative thoughts, and by removing myself from the suffering I was able to remind myself of why I was doing this and regain the confidence that I could finish the race. I was intimidated by the fact that I still had almost 50 miles to go and that it would probably take me another 16 hours to finish, but at least I felt good about taking on the next section of the race.

Dima and I walked up the hill together and it was great to have company on the trail, especially someone as energetic as Dima. He was the first to admit that his legs were struggling with he course, but he knew that his mind was strong enough to get him through the entire race and it was his mental energy that helped keep me going. Our pace was very slow, but this is what I needed, I had been pushing hard all day and it great to finally be moving at a comfortable pace. We talked and joked and laughed and kept plodding along uphill for 1,500 feet. When we reached the top I felt ready to run, but Dima's legs were a little reluctant to pick up the pace. I was grateful for his company, and even though I thought I could probably move a bit quicker I let him set the pace. I reminded myself of how bad I felt before and didn't want to go there again so I was happy to keep it easy going.

A few more miles and we started the long descent that would lead to the next aid station. As soon as we started down the shooting abdominal pains returned. This time around I was in a much better mental state and I felt better about honestly assessing my situation. With the mental confidence that I could keep going what did I really think about the way I was feeling? Not good. After two hours of running with Dima I felt like I was getting back into the same place that I was before. My body wasn't functioning the way it needed to to keep me going for the rest of the race. It's not surprising that I felt better when I stopped running, but it didn't fix my problems, it just put them on hold until I started up again.

A few miles from the next aid station Bill Susa (whom I'd met at Virgil Crest 100 in 2011) caught up to us and we ran together for a while. I explained everything I had been going through all day and it was good to get his perspective. Dima was strongly advocating the "fight through it" approach and Bill the "listen to your body" approach. I appreciated everything they had to say and they both helped me come to the decision that I shouldn't continue. (Bill went on to finish in 29:19 and Dima in 31:04.)

I'd had a lot of time to come to terms with this decision, and I was glad that I tried to continue after I was almost certain that I had to stop at 54 miles. It was clear that even though I was well prepared for the terrain my body couldn't handle the weather. So frustrating. I felt so bad for Emma and Mindy investing so much time in supporting me and not being able to be part of getting me to the finish. They continued to support me after I stopped running and I am grateful for everything they did.

After snacking at the aid station where I dropped I got changed and the three of us headed out to find something more substantial to eat. I hadn't been able to eat much all day and I was famished. The new plan was to get a few hours of sleep and then Mindy was going to get up and pace George, but we found out before going to bed that George had dropped at the same place as me. As far as we knew Tom and Bob were still out there. In the morning we were slow to rise, but realizing that our friends were still out running we got ready to head down to the finish line for breakfast and to cheer on the finishers. George was already talking about the TARC 100, but as Emma and I walked to the finish line I told her "Do not, under any circumstances, let me sign up for the TARC 100."

We found Tom walking up the hill back to the sukkah, we just missed his finish in 27:20. After a round of congratulations we headed down for breakfast and in search of information about where Bob was on the course. While eating we learned that Bob had recently left the aid station at mile 81.6 miles and we all decided that as soon as we finished we'd go find him on the course.

While eating, and watching runners finish the race Emma leaned over to me and said "You can do TARC if you want." It was still way too soon for me to seriously consider this, but I appreciated her saying it, and it got me thinking...

After breakfast the whole team packed up and headed off to meet Bob, we realized we didn't have enough time to meet him at 87.9 miles so went to the 96.8 aid station (the race is actually 103.7 miles). Even though Bob was participating in the Stonewall Jackson division (no crew, no pacer) we knew that he was cutting it close to the cutoff and that given the choice of finishing with a pacer or not finishing at all it would be an easy decision to make. Emma got ready to run and the rest of us got prepared to help him through this last stop as quick as possible. Ann and Mindy went up the course to intercept Bob and find out if he wanted to accept our support, and when he came along they relayed the message ahead to George, Emma and I: "He'll take it!" We took his pack, prepped two water bottles and got him on his way in less than 2 minutes with Emma as his pacer. It was great to see the team rally around our last running member, and even better to be there when he crossed the finish line in 35:40. I am in awe of his strength and determination.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Traprock 50k Race Report

I think it's good to use shorter races as training runs for longer races, although I'm not sure when 50k became a shorter race. The Traprock 50k certainly didn't feel like a short race on the day. Participating in races is a good way to gauge your level of fitness and it also helps you prepare for running with others - whether you're taking it competitively or not, it's a different experience running with others in a race compared to a training run. You also get the opportunity to test out your fueling strategy and practice with aid stations, something that can be very different from the usual long training run when you may have to carry more and generally don't have volunteers every few miles helping you out.

The timing of this race, as well as the terrain, would serve as good prep for the MMT 100 coming up in a few weeks and by comparing times of runners who had completed both races in previous years I figured this would allow me to get a better estimation of how much time I can expect to be out on the trails at Massanutten. A few people have planted the seed in my head that it might be possible for me to break 24 hours at MMT, a very ambitious time that only a handful of people (usually 10-15) are able to make every year. I estimated that if I have a shot of breaking 24 at MMT that I would need to run better than 4:45 at Traprock. Definitely not as easy task based on what I knew about the race, 5 hours seemed like a more reasonable goal, but it really depended on how hard I raced. I had a hard time decided if this was going to be an all-out race effort or just a training run, but ultimately my real goal is to do well at Massanutten so I guess I approached Traprock as a hard training run.

Not sure who these guys are, but this is a good shot of some of the more technical trail.

I didn't really taper for Traprock, it came after a lower mileage week of training (51 miles) and would become part of a step back up in mileage (70+). I had some minor piriformis and achilles issues in the week leading up to the race causing me to hold back in training a little more than I originally planned, with the result being that I went into the race feeling a bit more rested than I expected, and thankfully (mostly) pain-free. In looking at previous years results and split times (the race is three laps of a 10.5 mile loop) it was clear that EVERYONE slows down on each successive lap. The top 10 runners slowed by an average of 22 minutes between their first and third laps. Normally I would aim for more consistency, but if that’s what the best runners are doing on this course why should I be any different? My plan was to start out somewhat conservatively, try not to get caught up in “racing” too early, and hopefully feel consistently strong throughout even though I expected to slow on each lap.

Nathan and I headed down to Connecticut on Friday afternoon, crashed at a hotel about 15 minutes from the race start and met the rest of the TMR team on the morning of the race. We got there in plenty of time to check-in, place our drop bags, hang the TMR flag and get in a bit of a warm-up. There had been a little rain on Friday but I was pleased to find the course was mostly dry with only a few slick spots. I went out in two different pairs of shoes to see which had better grip, ultimately deciding on my new Mudclaw 300’s over the Mudroc 290’s.

The morning was cool but I knew the temperature would rise soon enough, and of course, with a 300 foot climb in the first mile I knew that I’d be working hard right from the start. I decided to wear shorts and a singlet, baseball cap and a thin pair of gloves. After a pre-race meeting that included words from a local senator and town official we set off on about 50 yards of asphalt before making a sharp turn onto the trail and heading steeply uphill. I found myself probably just outside the top 20, this seemed like a good place to be but as the climb went on many of those in front started to drop back. By the time we finally crested the first hill I had moved up at least half a dozen places. I transitioned well into faster downhill running and and managed to pick off a few more people on some of the more technical sections of the course. It wasn’t necessarily my intention to move up in position this early in the race but I work hard at technical downhill running in training and it seemed to be paying off in the race.

At about 2 miles into the race we hit the Stairway to Heaven, a notorious climb that looks pretty evil, and is in no way runnable (for most people) but actually wasn’t that long. More aggressive than the Summit Trail at Bradbury, but it was over in a few minutes and I was back to running again. At 5k the course begins a 1k out-and-back lollipop that gives you a chance to see how the people are looking ahead of and behind you. I counted the runners on this stretch and found that I was in 13th place. Still very early in the race but I was feeling good and started to have ambitions of finishing in the top 10. On my way back on this out-and-back I saw Joe close behind, then Nathan, David and Ben.

I was skipping all the aid stations on this first lap since I was carrying a 22oz bottle in a waist pack, along with some trail mix, a gel and a small flask filled with a mix of Odwalla and chia seeds. Most of the second half of the loop is less technical and steep than the first half so the pace picked up along some nice rolling single track with views out to the west. From the final aid station of the loop there was a little more than a mile of old, broken paved road before we turned back along the mile and a half of more technical, hilly trail that doubled as the way out on the loop. I soon saw the lead runners coming up the hill towards me which made navigating the rocks a little more tricky. After a fast 300 foot descent I ran towards the finish line to complete the first lap. I hadn’t been looking at my watch so it came as a complete surprise when I saw the time on the clock at the line. 1:32. Damn, that was a little too fast. I was expecting to be around 1:40. I felt good, but realized that I was probably pushing it a little too hard on that lap, there were still a lot of miles to go.

I made a quick stop at my drop bag to grab a new bottle then headed back up the hill. I had no idea if I managed to hold onto my place while I was stopped. Lots of people were coming in and going to their drop bags but I was too focused on my own stuff to pay attention, and I decided that I didn’t want to get too caught up in hanging onto my place. Not knowing took the pressure off.

The second time up the hill included more walking than the first, and by now there was a steady stream of runners coming down the trail at me. I got to see the rest of the TMR team before the trail split and everyone was looking good. I made a conscious decision to hold back a bit on this lap, I knew that if I tried to maintain the pace I’d been doing for the first lap that I’d probably end up crashing pretty bad. I walked more of the ups but found that I was generally able to make up ground on other runners on the downhills.

By my second time on the lollipop the top one or two runners had already exited before I entered, but I did see Adam Wilcox who had been in third place the last two times I saw him. I didn’t bother to count runners this time, instead just focusing on running consistently and keeping the fluid and fuel going in. It was starting to warm up and I worried about draining my bottle so I did stop at one aid station on this lap for a cup of water that turned out to be HEED. To my surprise it was on the road section of the course that I seemed to feel the most sluggish on this lap. The Mudclaws don’t make a good road shoe. Once back on the trail there was a gradual climb before making the steep drop back down to the start/finish area. As I started the quick descent I saw Adam coming uphill towards me, I cheered him on but his response was something like "blergh”. He definitely wasn’t looking right.

This time I was puzzled by the clock at the finish line: 3:14. Puzzled mostly because I couldn’t do math, but I eventually figured out that I had slowed by 10 minutes on that lap, a bit more than I thought. I also realized that if I was going to break 5 hours I could only afford to slow down by another 2 minutes on this lap. This wasn’t going to be easy, but I decided not to stress about it, just continue to run by feel, the way I had for the first two laps and let myself be surprised by what the clock showed when I was done.

Part way up the initial climb of the third lap another runner sidled up to me and started to chat. He definitely wanted to break 5 hours and hoped we could pull it off together. As friendly as he was I wasn’t in the mood for conversation, I just wanted to focus on getting this done. We ran together, back and forth for the next few miles. I’d tend to get ahead on the more technical parts and steep downhills and he’d get ahead of me on the uphills and less technical terrain. With about 10k left to go in the race we pulled into an aid station together and both made a quick stop to grab a drink. I was out first but he quickly caught up and announced his intention to put the hammer down in an effort to break 5 hours. It sounded like a good idea since we were entering the less technical part of the course, but I’d had a growing pain in my lower abdomen and felt the need to stop for a pee. I had to get that out of the way before trying to pick up the pace. I stepped off the trail and began to do my thing, but it didn’t look right. In fact, it looked like I’d just cut open a vein. After producing about a cups worth of what looked like straight blood the stream thankfully stopped.

I was a little freaked out and wasn’t quite sure what to do. Not finishing wasn’t an option I considered, there were only about 5 miles left in the race, I just wasn’t sure how hard I should push it to the finish. I walked a few paces and then settled into a slow jog. I felt OK, but there was definitely something going wrong on the inside. A few minutes passed and Tom Page came flying by me. How much more damage could I do in the next few miles? I decided I’d be better off getting this over as soon as possible so I picked the pace up. I had hopes of keeping Tom in my sights but he was moving too well.

I soon came to the last aid station of the race where I found Adam seated in a chair under the tent, not looking well. I went to see if he was OK, not that I could do anything for him that the volunteers couldn’t. I asked if he was going to keep running and he responded: “I have no choice.” I’m sure he could have made his way off the course with a volunteer, this aid station was less than a quarter mile from the finish line the way the volunteers came in, but I knew what he meant.

5k left to go, mostly flat or downhill, except for that part that isn’t, that long gradual uphill. I ran hard and was definitely feeling tired, but I was determined not to lose any more places or any more blood. In the final descent, while pounding the downhill, I could feel my left calf threatening to cramp. A fall on that trail, at that speed would have been disastrous. Hospitalization type of disaster. Luckily I was able to keep the screaming muscle at bay and maintain my upright position. Off the hill and it was a 50 yard sprint to the finish, and another surprise when I saw the clock: 5:04:28. The way things had gone in the last 5 miles I was fairly certain that breaking 5 wasn’t going to happen, but I was still happy with the result. Somehow, with all the back and forth I managed to hang on to 13th place, right where I was at 5k. So despite slowing down with each lap I guess I didn’t screw it up worse than anyone else. I ran really hard on some challenging terrain, and apart bleeding out of my penis it went really well. OK, so I have to figure out why that happened and if there is anything I can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

time: 5:04:28
distance: 31 miles
pace: 9:49
place: 13/105 finishers


After catching my breath I went back to my drop bag, grabbed a drink and my camera and waited for the rest of the team to come in. Joe wasn’t far behind, then Ben, Nathan, David and Jordan. Another good day for the team.

So what does this mean for Massanutten? I’m pretty sure it means I shouldn’t go after a sub 24-hour finish. 25 seems like an ambitious, but attainable goal if everything comes together perfectly - although when does that ever happen? 26 seems like something I should be able to do, but who knows. My biggest concern is the weather, there is only so much I can do to prepare for the potential heat and humidity of late spring in Virginia. I feel good about the hills and the technical terrain, I feel great about my support crew and pacer.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Bradbury Blizzard Snowshoe Race

My Blizzard began on Saturday morning when I met Ryan at the park to scope out the trails for Sunday's race. Due to variable snow conditions over the past few years we've had to change up the race courses on short notice before each race in order to take advantage of the best conditions. We've finally got enough snow to work with on all of the trails so Ryan decided it was a good time to return to the West Side of the Brad and came up with an ass-kicking course that is similar to the Breaker. We donned our snowshoes and set off at an easy pace around the mountain. Conditions were variable, from snowmobile trail to packed single-track to unbroken trail. We paused along the way to pick up downed branches, plan the best route and doubled-back here and there to better define the course. After nearly an hour and a half we had covered a little more than 5 miles and had a good course defined.

Even though this is a step-down week in my 100 mile training I had to get in longer than a 5 mile snowshoe run so I planned to make two more passes of the course. This would serve as a pretty solid training run, especially given all the hills on the course, and also help to get the race course better tracked before the race. After last week's 36 mile run at Val's Fat Ass 50k I wasn't sure how much energy I'd have for a 3+ hour snowshoe run so I made sure to fuel up well before and during the run. On the second lap of the course I didn't have to stop like we did on the first time around and I managed to complete that loop in 1 hour and 1 minute. After another brief stop at the car to refuel I headed out for a third time. By now it was about 11:00 and the temperature was on the rise, well above freezing. The snow that I'd been packing down was actually starting to soften up, at least in the sunnier spots on the course. I tried to maintain a consistent effort throughout, walking the steeper uphills and letting gravity do its thing on the downs, and I managed to knock out the third lap in 1 hour even.

Generally I was feeling pretty good physically, but more importantly I was feeling really well prepared for the race mentally. I always feel like I have some kind of advantage going into the snowshoe races since I'm pretty much the only one racing who knows the course, but anyone is welcome to come out for the course recon the day before.

On race day Ryan and I got to the park at 7:30 to mark the course, the temperature was right at 32 and it was nice to find that the trails had firmed up overnight with the colder temps. Of course this was going to change in the hours before the start of the race, but it made things easier for getting around the course. We split the course and each covered about 2.5 miles at an easy pace while placing flags and arrows as we went. After a quick wardrobe change we set up registration and the start & finish lines and then relaxed for a bit while the racers arrived and got themselves checked in and ready to go. At about 10:30 my stomach was rumbling. I hate racing hungry, but it was a bit too close to the start to eat anything solid so I decided to drink an Ensure that I had in my bag, a leftover from last week's long run. I usually find that it's pretty easy to run right after drinking one of these since I use them in ultras, but this was the first time I've ever had one right before a short race where I was going to running at a much higher level of intensity than in an ultra. Perhaps I shouldn't have downed the whole thing, 350 calories is a lot to handle, but at least I wasn't hungry any more.

I had time for a short warm-up run, it doesn't take long to get your heart rate up when running in snowshoes, and a little time to regret that Ensure. A crowd of 59 runners lined up at the start and after a few announcements and warnings about fun and potentially dangerous course features from Ryan - who was taking part in the race today - we were off and running. I decided to go out at a somewhat conservative pace at the beginning, knowing that this was a comparatively long snowshoe race, that the hilly terrain would naturally spread out the field, and that the trail conditions would allow for passing. When we left the field and entered the wooded trail I was in 6th place. Not surprisingly Jim Johnson was out in front, with (perhaps not in the right order) Doug, Jeremy, Scott and Andy in between. I was right on Andy's heels but didn't want to make a move too soon, I needed to suss out how he was running today.

By about 1/2 mile in I figured I was capable of going a little harder on the downhills that he was, so I waited until we came to a short, steep downhill on the Boundary Trail. I stepped just off the beaten path and launched myself off the drop-off, hitting the ground and weaving back onto the trail barely missing a tree. The momentum from this move allowed me to close the gap on Scott by a bit. As we neared the bottom of the hill on the Boundary Trail it sounded like Scott said something to Doug who was right in front. Doug moved right around a tree and Scott went left, I put in a surge and followed Scott to move past Doug. The snow was pretty soft on this descent and it took everything I had to maintain balance as I negotiated the hill, the bumps, the turns and the speed.

On the steep climb that followed along the back side of the mountain Scott started to pull away. We were only 1.5 miles into the race, still plenty of trail left and I figured as long as I kept him in my sights I'd have a chance of catching back up on the next big downhill. I could also see Jeremy ahead and figured that Scott was working hard to try and catch him. At about 1.75 miles we turned on the South Ridge Trail which begins a gradual descent that gets progressively steeper, ultimately dropping about 200 feet in 1/3 of a mile. I closed the gap, got on Scott's heels and waited for the right time to pounce. At rocky outcropping Scott went left so I moved to the right and put in a surge. He wasn't going to make it easy for me but I barely made it past before our paths converged. I kept hammering the downhill, on the verge of losing control, but this is how I had to run to keep ahead of Scott.

As the trail bottomed out I could see Jeremy up ahead. The next 3/4 mile featured a 250 foot climb up to the summit of Bradbury, this certainly wasn't going to be an easy place to put in another surge but I knew I couldn't get complacent about my position in the race. Scott would take his place back if I gave him a chance. As we passed the picnic shelter there was a crowd of TMR volunteers cheering and this gave me just the motivation I needed. The gloves were off, literally (thanks for picking them up Linda). As we started the climb on the Switchback Trail I had closed in on Jeremy and was only a few paces back. I encouraged him to stay strong, and he was clearly working hard so it wasn't easy keeping up.

By about 1/2 way up the Switchback Trail I could tell that Jeremy was losing a little steam. I stayed on his heels for a few more turns before ultimately taking the tight inside line of a corner and sneaking past. I managed to step it up a notch and open a slight gap before we reached the summit. I figured if I could get far enough ahead to be out of his view I could afford to relax a bit and catch my breath on the flat stretch that followed. We were only 3 miles into the race, still a lot of time for Jerermy, Scott or anyone else to catch me so I had to stay focused.

After summiting there was a short section of trail with 2-way traffic, I got to see Paul, Jerry, Chandra, Kate, Ann and George coming the opposite way and I did my best to offer some encouragement without slobbering all over the place. Speaking and snowshoe racing don't go well together.

When I turned onto the Tote Rd I realized there was only one runner ahead of me on the course, although I never thought for a second that I had any chance of seeing him until the race was over. I pushed on as hard as I could out of fear that someone was going to come up on me. This stretch was pretty flat, not my strength. I channeled the music I had been listening to on the way to the park early this morning:

Eventually the Tote Rd joined up with the Northern Loop and began a gradual climb nearly all the way back up to the summit. At least the Northern Loop had received snowmobile traffic so the footing was pretty solid and I was able to maintain a strong pace going uphill.

The course turned onto the single-track of the Terrace Trail dropping about 200 feet in 4/10 of a mile. I pretty much knew I was safe once I started to descend, this is my favorite trail to run in the park, especially when covered in snow and you can really let loose. The snow was slick and loose, most footfalls ended with a squish and glide but every now and then one foot would sink deeper and throw off my balance. I figured the worst that could happen would be a face plant in the soft snow so I wasn't too worried about losing control. Luckily I did manage to stay upright and from the bottom of the hill it was a mostly flat sprint for another 4/10 of a mile to the finish line. It may have just been my tired legs but it seemed that the footing in this final stretch was some of the worst of the whole course. Just as I wanted to try and kick it up another notch for the finish the snow seemed sloppier and less efficient.

As I entered the field I heard a cheer from the crowd of volunteers and supporters, who had been waiting for quite some time since Jim had come through the finish. My attempt at a final sprint was somewhat thwarted by more soft snow but I managed to stay strong until crossing the line. Definitely a good race for me. It's great to be inspired, pulled and pushed by so many of my TMR teammates. A great day for the team.

time: 44:17
distance: 4.8 miles
pace: 9:13
place: 2/58


Monday, February 11, 2013

Bradbury White Out Snowshoe Race Report

It's amazing how much variability there is in snowshoe racing. On Monday it looked like the Bradbury White Out would be run on a combination of dirt and icy trails, by Wednesday we were pretty sure there was going to be some snow, but no clear idea if it would be enough to snowshoe on. By Friday the concern shifted to "how the hell are we going to pack out a race course in all this snow?"

With plans for a 25 mile trail run on Saturday it soon became clear that wasn't going to be an option in 24+ inches of new powdery snow, so I changed my plans to doing laps of the snowshoe race course to both pack the trail and get in my long run for the week. I hoped to be able to cover at least 3 laps of the 4 mile course in 4 hours which would be about the same amount of time I had expected to run for if I'd been on the type of trails I was dealing with early in the week. That plan changed as soon as I set foot on the trail Saturday at noon. With snow ranging in depth from mid-calf to above my knees my Garmin told me I was moving at about a 32 minute per mile pace. With all this snow it wasn't too surprising that I lost the real trail in a few places and ended up having to do a little backtracking. I had originally hoped that I'd be able to run on my second lap, but these short sections of backtracking made me realize that the second pass of the course would be like breaking trail through 18" of snow instead of 24". Not much easier and certainly not runnable.

After 2 hours and 13 minutes I finally finished one lap of the course. I was working hard, at least as much effort as I would be putting in a long trail run, but I felt pretty good after the first lap so set off on the second in hopes of getting it done in under 1.5 hours. About 1/4 mile into the second lap I paused to take a photo and discovered my camera wasn't in my pocket. Shit! It must have fallen out when I tripped on a stump and did a face plant more than half a mile back. I contemplated continuing on and looking for the camera when I came back around on the second lap, but since it was still snowing and the wind was blowing strong I realized I didn't have much time before it would be completely reburied. When I returned to the scene of the crash, much to my surprise, I discovered a little loop of camera strap sticking up out of the snow. Yes!

At this point I decided to keep going around the course in the opposite direction rather than going back and starting over again, it was clear that the second time around the course wasn't going to be much faster. There were places that my tracks from the first pass were completely obliterated by the drifting snow and I was breaking fresh trail all over again. After a total of 4 hours and 9 minutes I had covered only 8.3 miles, but did make it around the race course twice so at least there would be some kind of trail for people to follow in Sunday's race. Its hard to say exactly how this would compare to my planned 25 mile run, I certainly felt like I had worked very hard for 4 hours.

There are snowshoes down there somewhere
The next morning I was up early to shovel snow at home, then got to Bradbury about 8:30 in the morning for more shoveling. We had to be able to get runners to an area for registration, to the picnic shelter for post-race activities, to the trail head across the road and we needed to clear an area for volunteers to stand at the finish line where they wouldn’t be knee deep in snow. I also made an attempt at reducing the snow depth of an area at the start line so there wouldn’t be quite such a bad bottle-neck as 50+ runners tried to squeeze into a 2’ wide snow trench at the start of the race. Luckily a few volunteers showed up early to help clear snow and to get everything else set up for the race. Ryan had been there since 6:30 making another pass of the race course and putting out the markings, not that it needed much marking since it was the only trail on the east side of the park, but it definitely needed a little more foot traffic before the race.

By 10:30 we were done with set-up, most runners were checked in and it was time for me to start thinking about my race. I’d had my running gear on since leaving the house early that morning, so all I had to do was strip off a few layers, change shoes and get my snowshoes on. I really wasn’t sure what to expect for today's race. I knew better than anyone what the conditions and course were going to be like, but the race itself is so dependent on who else is there and where you position yourself in the pack. Knowing that the first few runners would be dealing with the worst of conditions, and that I wasn’t exactly going into this race fresh and rested I figured I should be just outside of the top 10 to start. One thought was to go out “easy” and enjoy the benefits of a somewhat better packed course with hopes of being able to have something left for a surge in the last mile where I’d pick off the weary runners who had been doing all the work for most of the race. I wasn’t convinced that relying on a late surge in any snowshoe race was a good idea though. Another idea I had was to work as a team with a few other Trail Monsters where we’d take turns leading a pack, and regularly switch up the leader so no one runner was doing all the hard work. In the end I did neither.

Photo by Maine Running Photos
I lined up in more or less an appropriate place, a little behind Ryan W., Scott, Jamie, Alan, James, David, Chuck and a few others. When the race started Ryan and Scott took off fast, but everyone else seemed to be a bit cautious, I don’t think anyone wanted to be out front and do all the work. Before I knew it I found myself in fourth place behind David, and it wasn’t long before Ryan and Scott were out of sight, not that I could see much with all the powder that was being kicked up in front of me. I could tell that I had a pack of strong runners on my heels and I figured it was only a matter of time before someone asked to get past. I think everyone was breathing too hard to say anything. After a gradual downhill along Knight Woods there was a steep drop and then short climb as we crossed the snowmobile trail. After the climb I was tight on David’s heels and felt that I could probably go a little bit faster, but this certainly wasn’t the right part of the course to make a move on as the trail twisted and turned in narrow gaps between trees.

When I knew we were close to merging with the Snowmobile Trail, a little before the 1 mile mark, I let David know that I would be willing to take over the work of leading the pack for a while if he wanted to let me pass. This wasn’t a confident declaration that I thought I could stay in front, but I thought it was fair to give him a break. Once we made the turn on onto the Snowmobile trail he took one step to the left and I moved around to the right. I had every expectation that it wouldn’t be long before David or someone else would come up on me and ask to pass. As we approached the turn from the Snowmobile Trail onto Fox East I could hear Emma up ahead cheering me on. After a 25 mile run from home to Bradbury she arrived 5 minutes before the start and then hiked up the trail to help direct runners and provide some encouragement. It worked. Seeing her there gave me a boost and I pushed hard on the technical terrain. I opened a small gap but it wasn’t long before there were footsteps right on my heels again.

It wasn’t going to be easy to shake this chase pack, but I did start to wonder if maybe I could hold this position for the rest of the race. I was definitely running scared. If someone wanted to pass I wasn’t going to stop them, but I feared that as we got closer to the finish I wouldn’t have the opportunity to make a move and get that place back again. I put in a surge on the downhill of Fox and opened a slight gap, but I was on the verge of getting out of control. Rather than being compressed under each footfall the snow just slipped around and moved out of the way. The downhill surge actually took a lot of energy just to keep upright and I needed a slight recovery on the gradual climb that followed, but recovering on an uphill in fresh powder snow is not really an option and I could tell that the gap was closed up pretty tight behind me. I focused on trying to match the stride of the footsteps ahead of me to find the most solid footing. As much as I wanted to ease off the pace to lower my heart rate and breathing I knew that doing so would make it that much easier on everyone chasing me and it would only be a matter of time before someone felt bold enough to make a move and pass. So I charged on at near maximum effort. As the gradual climb topped out I knew we’d be crossing the snowmobile trail soon which would be a great opportunity for someone to make a move so I put in another surge to try and pull away. After we crossed the Snowmobile Trail we were back on narrow and twisting single-track and I relaxed a little bit.

Knowing that the next opportunity for someone to make a move would come when we turned from Ginn onto the wide, downhill of Old Tuttle Road I put in another surge. I had told a few others that this would be a good place to really kick it in so I knew I’d have to make my move early.  As I made the turn onto Old Tuttle I almost wiped out but just barely managed to keep upright. The next 2/10ths of a mile were an all out sprint. I caught a glimpse of someone up ahead on the trail but didn’t dare take my eyes off the snow immediately in front of me for too long. As I made the sharp turn onto Lanzo and back onto tight single-track I knew I had opened up a gap and just hoped that it was big enough to hang onto. I was feeling pretty spent and feared that if someone did catch up to me I wouldn’t have enough in me to put up much of a fight.

Photo by Amber Waterman
The tight turns that came in the last 3/4th of a mile actually played to my strengths and I could tell I was moving away from my chase pack. I had thoughts of reigning in second place but didn’t know how much of a lead he still had on me, probably less than a tenth of a mile but I was running out of real estate. Just before making the turn from Lanzo onto the Link Trail for the final push to the finish I could hear the crowd at the finish line cheering. Someone had just crossed the line. Despite knowing that I couldn’t catch anyone in front of me and that the chase pack was far enough back that I didn’t have to worry I still gave it everything I had for a sprint to the finish. I was surprised and very pleased to finish third. It wasn’t how I planned to run, not that I really had much of a plan, but I was lucky to feel good throughout the race and stay strong to the end. Ryan W. got the win with Scott only 1 second behind. Just under a minute after me David came in with five others right on each other heels behind: Jennifer, Kristina, Jamie, Chuck and James.

It was a fun race in very challenging conditions, but no doubt frustrating for those who were caught in the trench and unable to pass.

time: 39:45
distance: 3.5 miles
pace: 11:21
place: 3/53


After catching my breath I went for a short cool-down run on the road with a few others, then enjoyed some hot soup with the rest of the runners as the prizes were given out. Once we got everything from the race packed up, and Andy picked up the course markings, I headed back out on the race course to get in a few more miles. It was amazing how different the course was after all 53 racers had gone through, so much easier to run. I actually ran a faster time in my easy jog around the course than I did during the race. Snowshoeing is certainly a crazy and unpredictable sport.