Saturday, June 25, 2016

Runs on a driving vacation across the west

My family and I set out last week on a driving vacation to see national parks in Utah, Colorado and Arizona.

We set out on Tuesday up the I-15 to Las Vegas.  Driving past the Ivanpah solar thermal power station was cool:

We arrived in Hurricane, Utah, our staging point to visit Zion National Park.  The hikes in Zion were fabulous but it was very crowded.  My boys and I did a short hike /wade up the Narrows -- I waited for a gap in the throng to take this cool picture:
When we got back to the hotel, at Sand Hollow, I set out for a quick 6 miler on jeep trails in the desert.  It was a beautiful sunset:
The next morning I got up at 5am to head out into the desert in the other direction for a 7 mile wake-up run:

Then we were off to Bryce for a car tour-  lovely trails, wish I had had time there to run them-- and drove through Escalante.  Back in 1992 I did a fantastic backpacking trip there with a pal down Coyote Gulch to Steven's Arch on the Escalante.  We drove through that day all the way to Moab and got in late.  The next day we went to Mills Canyon to see Dinosaur footprints:

We did a driving tour through Canyonlands and then on to Arches National Park: Just fabulous.
The next day I woke at 5am again to run on a local trail in Moab, the left hand of the Mills Creek Trail.  It was a bit of a bush-wack and slow going but there were beautiful pools and waterfalls:  I covered 6 miles in 2 hours (!):

Later that morning I took the boys to swim  in the creek and then we were off to Cortez Colorado: There I found a great mountain biking trail in the Carpenter Natural Area just a mile from our hotel.  I ran 5 miles that evening.  The next morning I woke at 5am for a 10 mile Father's day run on those trails before the family woke up.  The trails were twisty and fabulous, the designer of the trail system was a genius:

That day we headed out to Mesa Verde:  The kids and I did the walk through the Balcony House. The pic below is a different pueblo.  The Balcony House tour was crowded but the kids had fun on the ladders and tunnel.  The walk up the cliff steps was a bit scary.
Then on to Gallup New Mexico-  our hotel was only three miles from the High Desert Trail system where I put in a fun sunrise 10 miler before the family woke up:

Onwards to visit the mining museum in Grants, NM and then through the Pertified Forest.  We made our way to Payson where we stayed near the Highline trail.  I put in 9 miles running on dirt roads before the kids woke up, before I actually found the Highline Trail-  so we'll have to go back, it looked beautiful.
 Later that morning I took the family for a  short hike on the Highline Trail, then we went on to hike at Water Wheel where we found a nice pool to cool off in:

That afternoon we drove to Phoenix.  I got up late and went out to get breakfast fixings before the kids woke up.  I drove out to Dreamy Draw to run on my old stomping grounds out of Dreamy Draw out behind Piestewa Peak (originally Squaw Peak) near where I grew up.  An 8:30am start was a bit late -- I carried 80 oz of water and kept my shirt wet the whole run. I ran from Dreamy Draw through the back side of Piestewa Peak and on to the Piestewa Peak trailheads for more water and returned.  

 The trails were beautiful but the heat was oppressive. At the end of the 10 miler, the car thermometer registered 114F:  I don't knowhow I did it, but as a teenager, I used to run long distances on those trails and I never carried water.  Last weekend several Phoenix hikers and mountain bikers died in that heat, its no joke.
 Later that day we visited my old high-school.  I showed the kids one of the plaques my cross-county team had won after a third place finish in the Skyline Divisional in 1981.  Over the last thirty years I guess they lost the other trophies we won!  I was also a bit sad to see that my brother's 800m record of 1:55 had finally been broken in 2012, after 29 years.
 The last day of our trip I did a 9 mile run circumnavigating Piestewa Peak out of Dreamy Draw.  I started early and it was only 105F when I finished!  Back in my day, none of these trails were marked;  now its mapped out with trail blazes.   The City parks people have done a great job preserving the desert and improving the trail system.
It was a great trip and its good to be back in Pasadena.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

SD100 DNF - Race report and reflections

My friend Mark Moromisato commented to me at the SD100 that ultra runners tend to be a pretty humble lot because the sport takes us all to our limits.  There isn't much room for egotism when we're laid out by the mountains.  This experience is universal  if we've been in the sport long enough and it keeps us in right perspective.

I found my limits at the SD100 this weekend.  I dropped at mile 55;  my first race DNF.

The short version of what happened is that, unacclimated to heat given the recent weeks of cool weather in SoCal, I went out too fast given the conditions.  Despite fair warning from the race director at the pre-race briefings, I got sucked dry by the dry wind  and  didn't keep up my hydration and electrolytes until it was too late.  Heat cramps turned the race into a death march by mile 35.  I dropped at 55 to avoid being hobbled.  Nevertheless  it was a great, beautiful day, full of lessons and inspiring performances by my fellows --  Greg, Tim, Skye, Will and many others who showed greater patience and humility than I did -- I look forward to giving it another try.

I wrote the long version  below   to process the experience; I share it for any interested aficionados.

I've had a couple days now to think about my SD100 race and am still processing it.  Its forced me to take a look again at why I run ultras.

Twenty-five years ago I ran the AC100:  My first ultra was also my first 100 mile race.  For me at that time, the race was like a vision quest.  I was determined to finish and recall telling my crew that I would not leave the course unless I finished or  was carried off of it.    I ran a great 50 miles but the last 30 miles or so had been a death march.  I finished with a list, with a swollen knee and ankle.  I spent a few days sleeping on the couch after the race as I couldn't make the stairs to my second floor bedroom.  It took me weeks  to recover.  I recall that, overlaying the feeling of accomplishment from having finished,  I also felt a sickening sense of shame for having voluntarily done that damage to myself.

In the years since,  I've come to a different approach:  A ground rule now is that I be able to walk and function the day after.    This obvious rule, articulated to me years ago by my friend David Alavi, now defines my training and  how I race.

This is not to say that training and racing shouldn't challenge limits or entail risk.  One aspect of the sport that I cherish is how taking it to "the well"  in the mountains and deserts breaks down internal barriers and allows  me to process things that tend to get buried in the routine of day-to-day existence.  Its therapy or prayer  and when I return home I see with fresh perspective.    I also cherish the challenging of physical limits that the sport entails.  In every season  different problems have arisen that required trouble shooting and persistence to overcome.  My AC100 finish in 2013 was like that-  I had to learn how to train again without getting sidelined by injury;  the race itself was skimming the cream of that learning process.  My 2015 AC100 finish was the capstone of a year-long rehabilitation from an accident in which I broke my hip socket.  When I packed my kit to head up to Wrightwood last year, I could honestly write that I had already achieved my objective:  I was trained and healthy enough to toe the line within the constraints of the ground rule.  The race itself, whatever the outcome, would be icing on the cake, and I went to that race profoundly unconcerned with the outcome.   Having given that away I got it back in the form of a fantastic race experience with my son and my close friend Dale crewing.

These experiences have been ecstatic.

This season the training followed this pattern too.    I had a solid base coming off of AC100 last year uninjured.  By winter I was running fast on long mountain runs and thinking about maybe running some fast race times.  One day in March, cranking hard down Mount Lowe, my hip flexers rebelled and I'd had to slow to a crawl to navigate the last four miles of technical descent.  This recurred in the ensuing weeks and I attributed it to having gotten lax about my hip stabilizer routine.  I redoubled my efforts.  After a few weeks the right hip was stronger but still painful enough after long runs that bending down to untie my shoes was a problem.  On a long run in late April, overstriding and not picking up that right foot given the tight flexers, I caught a toe and landed in a pile of scree earning a badly bruised knee.  After a week and a half of rest the hip was still hurting but the knee was getting a bit better.  I finally worked out that the piriformis and TFL  were essentially massive trigger points and I started aggressive rolling with full weight on  a tennis ball.  I took a liberal interpretation of my doctor's advice to rest the knee and re-started training with a shorter stride and slower pace. I pulled together two weeks of 100 mile training -- the gamble paid off, the knee was solid, the hip was good by SD100 race day.

All through the training  I was thinking about my race splits, visualizing 5 mph as in training.  Looking at the elevation profile:  SD100 should be a fast course!  A reconnaissance run through Noble Canyon two weeks before with Greg Frye taught me that its technical as all get out, but I had hopes of running even splits unlike my last AC, where after a 10 hour first 50 I ran 23:14 total.  A key to this, I thought, would be to limit time in the aid stations (and the day before the race I set the timer on my watch to help with this).

After a tough week at work I took Thursday off, packed in the morning and left Pasadena a bit after 1pm to drive to the pre-trace registration at Lake Cuyamaca.  I hadn't  accounted for traffic and so arrived about 20 minutes before the 5pm  checkin deadline feeling a bit frazzled.   I needn't have worried, the friendly race volunteers checked me in, no problem, and I ran into my pal Greg who was cool and collected having checked in early-- we sat on the pavement in the shade and listened to the pre-race briefing together.  Scotty Mills warned us that the predicted heat index was 110 and to adjust our race plans accordingly - drink up, stay on top of electrolytes, slow down--and hindsight shows that truer words were never spoken.

 Friday morning after a solid sleep I awoke nervous but the hip felt limber and the knee was good.  I packed that tennis ball in my running belt just in case.  I headed out to the start arriving again just  on the edge of late and got myself squared away.  Race Director Scotty Mills again briefed us on the predicted record heat and warned us to manage it:  I half-listened while wondering how I was going to break through the thick pack to avoid getting caught in the conga line once we hit the single track.

At 6am sharp we started and the scrum slowly lurched forward.  I managed to break free running on the shoulders and got clear by the time we started the single track.  The climb up middle peak surprised me-  it was all runnable- and I made good time through Paso Picacho running with Jenny Capel.  Hmmm. Then up Stonewall Peak, still mostly running.   Carefully descending the technical footing and on to Chambers, mile 12, it was getting warm!   I reloaded my four bottles (!) and headed out towards Sunrise, mile 21.  I was moving well, spraying my head and shoulders with a hand bottle filled with ice water, and drinking half strength Tailwind.  I was enjoying the day and was about half an hour ahead of my nominal 5mph training pace.  Within a mile of Sunrise I was dry-  all 4 bottles-  and starting to notice a lot of salt rime on my shorts and shirt.  Entering Sunrise,  Nick Nudell helped me reload and let me use his phone to call my wife, who was en route from Pasadena.  I noticed that my voice was an octave high, tight with dust and I was feeling very emotional. This was maybe the first sign of trouble but I missed it.  I was still feeling strong.  I rushed out of the aid station and as I crossed the highway I thought idly that maybe I should have drunk up in addition to filling my bottles.  No matter, onwards!

I headed off onto the PCT from Sunrise to Pioneer Mail (Mile 28).  The staggering view of the Anza Borrega Desert on this  section had astonished me on the training run with Greg two weeks earlier.   On that day it had been crisp and blustery and I had worn Polartec gloves.. not this day!   Noticing that I felt a little "thin",  just a tad dizzy, I attributed this to needing calories and ate a Cliffbar as I walked one of the ascents.  This was probably the wrong conclusion.  I washed the bar  down with a full bottle of water.   My shirt was dry so I doused my head and shoulders again, and drank more Tailwind.  Again, before reaching the aid station (Pioneer Mail) I was completely dry- 4 bottles.  My quads had started to give me some electric jolts... that seemed odd, this was early.  I quickly reloaded the bottles and drank an Ensure  and headed out, looking forward to the descent to Pine Creek.  I felt pressed for time.

After ascending a bit I started the technical descent -  a rocky single track like someone had taken a billion surplus baseballs, painted them like rocks and sprinkled them on the trail.  I took this carefully and recall registering that it was really hot!    I was sweating profusely.  My quads had started to cramp by the time I reached the dirt road.  At the top of the paved Pine Creek Road I stopped  to re-lube as the salt on my shorts was beginning to chafe;  I sat down to rub my quads and I picked a tick off my leg.  Tia Gabalita from Oregon (!) came through as I was getting up, looking just as she had in Cooper Canyon in 2013, looking as cool as if she were out for a morning run in the Shire.  I ran with her a bit but couldn't keep up her pace on the downhill;  the quads were locking up.  I went dry again, and started hiking, having a bit of trouble getting my wind on the uphills with tight chest.  I finally reached the aid station (mile 37).  I sat, drank up and took advice from Ang to eat bananas and strawberries.  I tried a shot of pickle juice.  I drank more tailwind and cola, reloaded the bottles this time with full strength Tailwind for the electrolytes,  and headed out.  While I took a fair bit of time here I was feeling rushed - a large group of runners came through after I entered and left before me. This contributed to a sense of  losing time and this perception was a big mistake -  In hindsight I think my day was still recoverable at this point if I'd just taken enough time to quit racing and start making  survival my top priority -- taking care of dehydration and heat issues.

Feeling better after the respite at Pine Creek I caught back up with Tim Christoni, who was moving along power-walking at a controlled and relaxed pace. He was taking it very smart in the heat and walking with him, I found that my quads  were working normally.  From the improvement in my quads I concluded (incorrectly) that I should pick up the pace and I set off running.  I felt pretty good for a while. As the slope steepened I became drenched in sweat in the dead air.  Eventually I  went dry.   The quads started cramping again and as I continued on the calves fired off as well.  Tim caught me with about 3 miles to go from Penney Pines, just as a cramp hit that locked up my calves and quads.   He  asked if I was OK and offered encouragement and the sound advise to slow down, take it easy; we had plenty of time.   It was clear at that point I was in a bad way.   Tim passed me and  I was able to continue slowly up until I got out of the canyon and into some moving air and got a cell phone signal.  I  called my wife, who was still en route from Pasadena, planning to meet me later.  I asked her to call my pacer, Dale, and tell him what was happening;  she had a little trouble understanding me with my croaking, tight voice.

Greg Frye caught me about a mile or two out from Penney Pines (mile 44) and he was feeling pretty baked too.  We compared notes and agreed the best thing to do was to regroup at the aid station and take it from there, but I told him I thought my race was probably done.  Greg ran ahead; I got in and  was ushered to a chair -  I couldn't figure out how to answer when  the station crew asked me what I wanted.  Two  little girls offered me ginger ale  which I accepted. When I sat down my skin was goose bumps.  Dale called me and talked me through it:  Sit and chill, rehydrate and get some salt, make no decisions, just walk to the next aid station when you feel better.   Though I was temped to drop at this point I took his direction. The girls proceeded over the next half hour or so to keep me topped off with coke, tums, a little bowl of salt, and a couple pickle juice shots, in between bouts of having my calves lock up:  I tried not to swear and I think I didn't.    Finally the calves stopped firing off and I got up to get my bottles filled.  Willard Weston was there and I walked over to see how he was doing- same as me.  He said he was going to take more time and get thoroughly hydrated before starting out.  I wished him luck and headed out.  Willie and the other aid station crew clapped as I walked out, I felt like I was back from the dead.

I walked about 20 minutes and called my wife to thank her for patching me in to Dale, and told her I was moving again.  She was in Julian with the kids at the hotel and said she'd head over to meet me at Meadows (mile 49).  As I walked some more I loosened up; as the grade shifted to a gentle downslope I tried a run and found to my amazement that  the quads, though sore, weren't cramping.  I ran/walked the rest of the way to Meadows.  The only issue was that I couldn't get my wind on the uphills as my chest was tight with dust from earlier and  my heart was racing on the uphills.  Then the terrain shifted to an easy downhill grade and I was able to run a steady pace into the aid station at about 6pm, ahead of Steph and the kids.  Mark Moromisato was there and got me bandaids to repair some salt abrasions (Thank you Mark!). I was feeling like I was back in the race.

I trotted out from Meadows on a slight downhill grade on perfectly smooth trail and was feeling pretty good.  Eventually the trail started a series of ups and downs and as the miles wore on I started to sweat profusely and the quads started to cramp up again.  I couldn't get my wind on the uphills.   The downhills at this point had gotten steep and became very  painful to run with the cramps.   I walked it in to the next aid station, Red Tailed Roost (mile 55).

Steph and the kids were there and as they got me into a chair my right calf locked up.  I recall looking at the muscles in my leg writhe like a bag of snakes.   They brought me some drinks and a fresh shirt.  I stayed there rehydrating and after I'd recovered a bit I talked privately with my wife about what to do.  I felt that I could continue but with 45 miles to go it was going to be a long painful death march;  I had a sickening feeling that continuing I would be throwing the ground rule out:  Gotta be able to walk the next day.   After a bit I got up, walked around to the back of the building to change into a clean pair of shorts, came back and turned in my bib to the aid station captain.

Afterwards we went to the Cuyamaca restaurant with my pacer Dale to get a bite  and debrief.  My legs kept cramping while seated there.  Back at the hotel I kept cramping and I had to ask my son straighten out my toes and foot when they cramped.  Things settled down ultimately and I got to sleep;  I woke about about the time my friend Greg was finishing.  I spent the afternoon with my boys fishing at the lake and catching up with friends.

One week later I am physically fine, and today I ran 20 miles with Greg covering the last part of the AC100 course from Idlehour to the finish.    It was a cool weather run again as a marine layer had moved in.  I was impressed with Greg's smooth running just one week after his gritty SD100 finish.

I cannot help but wonder what might have happened if I'd decided last week to try running one more leg, down to Cibbet's.

Many things went right this season:

  1. I worked through problems with my hip stabilizers, damaged from my 2014 accident and surgery, and discovered the power of trigger point release (with a tennis ball).  It was a bit of an act of  faith that this would work-  its painful and things sometimes get worse before they get better.   But it did:  What could have been a show stopper to my training proved manageable.
  2. I re-discovered the importance of keeping my feet under me after I took a fall over-striding and injured my knee a month before the race.   I learned a lot about technical downhill running -  keeping those feet under me with a fast cadence--in time to use these skills on the seriously technical terrain of the SD100.
  3. I was able to work through that knee injury and get to the start line healthy.  Shortening up my stride was key to that as well.

I learned a lot from the race:

  1. I went into the race with too rigid a commitment to a race plan  that didn't work under the conditions that day -- and I didn't recognize the need to radically change the plan until it was really too late.  How the day actually presents itself trumps the plan!
  2. Specifically I was focussed on maintaining splits and not losing time in aid stations to the detriment of taking care of myself in the record heat.  I cared too much about my race time and this was  the wrong priority.
  3. While it's important to refill bottles  at the stations and not waste time unnecessarily, it is equally important to use the stop itself to drink and cool down with water or ice on a hot day like that,  not just pick up supplies to drink on the run.  That day, I ran dry before just about every aid station, drinking "on the run" didn't work.   Nothing new here, but I've a visceral appreciation of the importance of this now!
  4. The sudden change from weeks of cool to very hot weather didn't allow heat acclimatization:  Again, the race plan needed to change, but I underestimated this.  We were all in the same boat and the runners that appropriately changed plans and slowed down finished intact.  I forgot what happened in my Leona Divide 50 race in 2015 with a similar early season heat wave;  Salt encrusted and dehydrated at mile 40 the last ten were pretty ragged; The difference was that I only had to gut out 10 more miles when the wheels started to fall off my wagon.
  5. I went into the race mentally tired from other things going on outside my training.  In retrospect, realistic  recognition of this and an appropriate rethinking of race goals would have reduced the stress that contributed to the feeling of being rushed not only in the race but in the pre-race logistics.  
  6. Asthma inhalers don't work if they are left  in the trunk of one's car.  

The San Diego 100 race is just fabulous-  an epic course, stunningly beautiful, perfectly marked; fantastic aid and volunteers;  great course documentation including Tim Christoni's gpx route that allowed Greg and me to explore parts of the course in advance.  The race was so well organized, it seemed like a well-oiled machine.    I am so grateful  to  Scott Mills, Angela Shartel and the army of SD100  volunteers who really put in their all to help me and many others.   I am so grateful to the folks at Penney Pines especially,  particularly  two little girls who kept me well  supplied with cola, salt, Tums, and pickle juice who resurrected me from the dead (temporarily!)

I am thankful to my wife Steph and kids for their understanding while I was off training this season and for braving the heat to crew me.   I'm thankful to my great friend Dale for coming down to pace me, although I didn't get that far, and offering his experience that pulled me back into the race and taught me how to deal with the heat issues for the next time. 

I hope to be back next year to test  whether I've learned the many lessons from this year.