Sunday, April 29, 2012

2012 IAU 100km World Championships

There’s no way I could do this race justice by just doing a typical race report.  To accurately share the full experience, you must be able to appreciate the full set of circumstances surrounding the event.  As such, this account will be much more like a trip report than my standard race report.  Because it's so long, I've divided it into two parts, so if you just want the race report, scroll down and skip to "The Race."

Team at the flag ceremony and parade.

Getting to the Starting Line

My journey to the IAU 100k World Championship race didn’t actually begin with travel directly to the race.  Through an incredible amount of scheduling luck, my business was conducting a test in France the two weeks prior to the race.  It was really quite amazing how well the puzzle pieces fell into place that allowed me to travel to France early for work and get the body acclimated to the new time zone in advance, all while covering a test that someone from my office would have been at regardless.

My small car and small home for a week in France.
Of course, things don’t always work out so perfectly as planned, and this was the situation I found myself in on the Friday just over a week out from the Sunday race.  Our testing had finished much earlier than expected which is virtually unheard of in our line of work.  Normally, I would have just changed my flight and returned to the US, but with the race upcoming, it didn't really make sense to fly home just to turn around and fly back to Europe a week later.  I scrambled over the weekend to find other work in France that would keep me productive.  Luckily, we have some business partners near Paris that we work with extensively, and they were able to get me emergency access to their facility (not an easy feat).  Long story short, I turned a really sticky situation into a great opportunity to interface with colleagues in a way that hadn’t been previously available.  I did have to fly to Paris, change hotels and rental cars, but it was worth the extra travel and inconvenience.

I got to see some cool stuff in France, like Carcasonne.
And an old Super Guppy at an outdoor aircraft museum in Toulouse.

After wrapping up work in Paris Thursday afternoon, I flew into Milan the next morning.  US teammate Michael Wardian was set to arrive 15 minutes after my flight, so we were planning to meet up and share a rental car.  He had forwarded me the rental reservation, and both of us just naturally assumed that we'd be meeting at the rental car desk.  But I get to the Malpensa airport and there’s no rental car desk for the company he selected.  There’s no sign of Mike either.  And I don’t know where to meet if not the rental car desk.  To make matters worse, neither of us had phone service or internet access at this point (I had a dumb phone, but no way to reach him).  I check the reservation he forwarded me, and down in the fine print I see that you have to catch a shuttle bus to an offsite location to get the car.  Did Mike go there ahead of me?  I didn’t know.  Not wanting to be left, I decided it was best to get as close to the rental car as possible.

I jumped on the shuttle and was taken to the most unusual car rental office I've ever seen.  It was in a small corner of an industrial building that appeared to be a soda bottler or something like that.  It had a tiny parking lot and no rental cars parked anywhere in the immediate vicinity.  Of course, the employees spoke very little English to my zero Italian.  The good news was that Mike did have a reservation and hadn't picked up his car.  I knew he hadn't left me, so I waited.  I sat outside the office on my USA Track and Field rolling bag.  And I waited some more.  The rental car company seemed like they were doing pretty good business, so that was a little reassuring.  Finally, after waiting for around 3 hours, Mike appears.  His flight from the US had been delayed, so he missed his connection and arrived in Milan later than expected.  Crisis averted, but it's quite a helpless feeling to be stuck in a foreign country with no real means of communicating with anyone.

Does this look like a rental car office to you?

Our rental "van" actually was a blessing in disguise.
They give us a van type thing, which at first was a little odd, but I convinced Mike to just go with it because it would probably come in handy ferrying around teammates.  (Boy, was I right.)  We entered in the address of our accommodations on the GPS and it’s a 2 hour drive.  That was a little unexpected.  But the drive was mostly uneventful and Wardian generously shared some of the snacks he packed because neither of us had eaten a real lunch and it was looking like it would be 4pm before we arrived at our lodging.  We tried to make the toll-paying experience more interesting than it should have been.  I was still scarred from getting stuck at a French toll gate that didn’t accept paper Euros or credit cards.  Luckily the Italian one accepted credit cards and we only had to put the van into reverse once to get the job done. 

About an hour in, we pass the race location of Seregno, a small town on the outskirts of Milan.  But the GPS says we still have another hour to drive.  That’s not a good sign.  If it’s not immediately obvious, having a group of 12 very particular athletes, most of whom don’t have cars, at a remote location with very limited access to – well, anything – is a recipe for disaster.  I fear the worst as we turn northward heading straight for the mountains.  We pass Lake Como and start climbing.  We pass through a small village and really start climbing.  Climbing switchbacks.  I was surprised to see a big charter bus coming down the switchbacks.  I think word got out among the bus drivers, because I never saw another one up there all weekend.  We peak out around 4pm at over 4,000 ft with traces of snow still hanging around.

Heading for the hills.
Um, yes.  We ended up there in the clouds.

Our home for the next three nights turned out to be Catholic retreat lodge in a very small mountaintop village.  As soon as we walked in the door, the lodge staff unexpectedly offered Mike and I a specially prepared late lunch.  That was a pleasant surprise and was a good sign of things to come, as our hosts were incredibly accommodating in spite of the difficult situation not at all of their making.  Mike and I went for a shakeout run while they prepared our food.

Our mountaintop location would have been great if we had time for exploring rugged and remote trails.  But we were there to run a fast road race, not mountain trails.  We found a relatively flat half mile loop and made the best of it.  We had spaghetti sans marinara sauce ready when we returned to the lodge.  It was actually quite tasty with just olive oil and salt, but we were so hungry at this point, I think shoe leather might have tasted good.  But they weren’t done.  We then were brought a large frittata (just a plain omlette), French fries, bread and a tomato salad.  That was nice.

We made it!
Quite a ways down to the lake.
The room situation was not so nice, however.  We had large numbers of our party packed into co-ed rooms filled with bunk beds, and if a room was really lucky, then they had their own “private” bathroom.  One group of folks that stayed there Thursday night had already exited, choosing to find their own accommodations elsewhere.  That fact, combined with the hard bargaining of our team managers, resulted in Mike and I getting a pretty decent setup that we also shared with Joe Binder.  We really didn’t know how good we had it with just 3 guys in one room plus a bathroom until much later in the weekend.  I heard one room had 11 adults in it with one bathroom to share.

Olsen, Wardian, and Braje loosening up on our level loop.
As I understand it, when a race bids for the World Championship and gets it, they are responsible to arranging the accommodations for all of the teams.  A rustic lodge, an hour from the race start, on the top of a mountain, is not adequate for a race of this caliber.  The local organizing committee (LOC) was also supposed to provide shuttle buses for everyone staying at our particular lodge (US, Canadian, and Mexican teams).  That was an utter disaster because it took two stages of shuttles to get folks down the mountain and then onto the big buses.  And Italians just don’t seem to be able to tell time in general.  I heard later that there was a furniture conference in Milan that weekend that prevented the LOC from obtaining any lodging close to the race, but that’s no excuse in my opinion.  That’s just a failure of the LOC to do the proper homework.

The bottom line is that I was there to focus on running a fast race, but I wasn’t ever able to think about the race because I was so busy dealing with last minute changes in plans and logistical nightmares.  Not exactly the ideal setup.  Worrying about everything but the race does have its advantages; I don’t seem to get as nervous when I don’t have time to think about the race.

Henshaw proudly carrying the flag.

Our team coaches and volunteers were absolutely great though, constantly making adjustments wherever they could to help the team run well.  As a team, we opted to skip the official pasta dinner the night before the race, because if we had gone, we wouldn't have returned to our rooms until 11pm.  And we were already looking at wake-up calls prior to 5am on race morning.  Instead, we arranged to leave Seregno immediately following the flag ceremony and had our lodge prepare us a special pasta dinner.  I will say that the flag ceremony and parade was very well attended by an enthusiastic Italian crowd.  But I was happy to leave early and be in bed by 10pm Saturday night.  I slept quite well that night once I got to sleep.  Only the noisy return of the other teams that attended the pasta dinner bothered me a little bit. 

The Race

I awoke around 4:30am and got a quick shower as is my standard pre-race routine just to help the body wake up a little better.  The guy’s team all piled into the van that Wardian and I had rented.  I told you it would come in handy.  There was no way we were chancing our transportation to the race start on the unreliable shuttle buses.  As a team though, we didn’t have enough cars for everyone, so the women’s team had to take the buses.  I made the not-so-bold prediction that the race start would be delayed because we saw no sign of buses when we came off the mountain heading toward town.

Indeed, the race start was delayed, but only by 30 minutes, which I considered a major accomplishment at this point.  And our women’s team arrived in a sufficient amount of time to get ready to run.  As we headed to the start line, race officials confiscated Joe Binder’s waist pack and water bottle.  Apparently there was a new rule this year that no one bothered to tell us that you couldn’t carry a handheld during the race.  Are you kidding me?  I carried a handheld last year.  I would have been furious and my nutrition plan totally destroyed if I had chosen to do the same this year.  Luckily for me, not so much for Joe, I had prepared disposable bottles with my favorite raspberry GU Brew and a GU gel taped to the outside to pick up every 10k.  I’m still trying to figure out why I could carry my disposable bottle however far I pleased, but Joe couldn’t carry a reusable handheld.  Inexplicable!

Buried several rows deep at the start.
As if that wasn't enough, I found something else to get even more furious about before the gun went off.  Once the team finally made it to the starting line, we were stuck about 5 rows deep behind people that had absolutely no business being in the first row.  You expect this to happen in local 5k’s, but not in a World Championship race.  Now, I fully admit that starting position has almost no impact on the outcome of a 100k race; it’s just the principle of the matter.  But the damage was done, and I got a huge adrenaline dump after getting so upset over this.  When the race started I took off much faster than normal, and I wasn’t weaving through the slow people in front of me; I went through them like an ice breaker ship in a frozen sea, wedging myself in between people and pushing them out of the way.  My first mile was just over 6 flat.  Way faster than my expected race pace, but that adrenaline high I was still riding made me feel awfully good.

I found myself in the unexpected position of being the lead guy for the American team.  Rationally, I knew that I would need to back off the pace some, so I tried to settle in and get comfortable.  Andy Henshaw joined me a short time later and we were able to get settled in together.  The pace was still much quicker than I was aiming to run, but I felt really good and was locked in clicking off 6:20ish miles.  There were two Italian teammates running in lockstep with us for the first 40k.  This was very interesting because the Italian team was second last year behind the US, and we knew that they would be strong contenders for the gold this year.  The weather was cloudy and cool, with a little wind, nearly perfect for racing.  And my GU gels were going down quite well, an aspect of my race which I have struggled with recently.

Andy and I cruising together early.
At 40k I still felt good, although my lower back and butt had begun to ache a little.  I was worried it was awfully early for this to be happening, but my breathing was incredibly controlled.  It was like 6:20 pace had become conversation pace.  I could tell by Andy’s face that he was starting to struggle a little bit.  A short time later, I slowly pulled away from him and the Italian guys.  

My first marathon was 2:45.

I turned my focus on getting myself through the 50k mark.  The 50k became a mini-goal because I knew I was on track to run my 50k PR.  Granted, I have never run a road 50k, but nonetheless, a PR midrace would be cool, if not a little scary.

I split the 50k in 3:16.

I was running alone now and started mentally breaking the race into smaller, more manageable 10k chunks.  With only half of the race behind me, and running a blistering pace, I knew things could get ugly for me later in the race.  I tried to relax and ease off the pace to prepare for this eventuality.  But I just kept clicking off 6:20s.  I was locked in.  It was comforting to know that my nutrition plan was going really well, much better than any race in the last year or so.  But the sun was starting to peak out and warm things up, so I began popping salt tabs and taking advantage of the wet sponge stations to cool myself.

The 4th loop (60k-80k) I expected to be difficult.  Everything was hurting by now even though I was still maintaining pace surprisingly well.  This phase of the race is usually the toughest mentally for me, but I knew this year there was no way I was going to quit.  I pressed only focusing on getting to the next aid station that was never more than 5k away.  

I split 50 miles in 5:17.

Fatigue came quickly right around 80k.  My calves suddenly started cramping.  My energy levels plunged.  I was worried that I was in big trouble.  I started focusing on surviving just to the next kilometer.  I felt like I was shuffling but the watch was still saying low 7 minute miles.  I was still drinking the GU Brew, but I couldn’t convince myself to eat another gel.  I started doing occasional 15-20 second segments of “pity walking” to help collect myself.  No one had passed me though since I left the group at 40k.  I knew I was still the first American and I would still run a really good time if I could just keep moving.  So I did.

My second marathon split was 2:49.

I was in survival mode until about 6 or 7 km to go.  It was then I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel again.  I started doing the math in my head trying to predict my finish time, desperate to run what I considered to be an acceptable second half.  My pace recovered somewhat as my will to reach the finish line trumped the total body pain that I was experiencing. 

With 3k to go, the course had a short hairpin turn extension where you could see anyone within about a about minute behind you.  A German runner was closing on me fast.  We made eye contact.  His eyes said, “You’re mine.”  I'm not sure what he saw in my eyes, but my mind was saying, "I don't think so."

The German that almost caught me.
I ran the last 3k on pride.  There was no way I was going to let this dude roll up on me this late in the race.  My GPS watch died at 60 miles so I have no clue how fast I was running, but it felt fast…definitely faster than I’d run since before 80k.  As we wound through an open field with just half mile to go, I knew I was going to hold him off.  I made sure not to leave any doubt though, and I kicked hard for the finish.

6:45:19.  5th place overall.  1st American.  

If that weren't enough, my top-10 finish automatically qualifies me for the 2013 US 100km team that will be racing in South Korea.

Jon Olsen and Mike Wardian finished less than 4 minutes behind me, and Joe Binder’s PR effort was enough to put 4 American men in the top 10.  Todd Braje ran well, but it definitely wasn't his best day. Henshaw had to drop out when he became unable to hold down any calories.  As a team, I really feel we ran great, but it wasn't enough to beat the Italians this year.  Giorgio Calcaterra won the individual title again this year with a PR of 6:23 (6:09 pace), and the Italians also put another team member in front of me.  Although we had all three of our guys well in front of their 3rd man, it wasn't enough to make up for the time cushion that their first two runners provided.

The US Women’s team completely stole the show though.  Amy Sproston won the individual gold and led the team to a decisive victory on the team side.  The women put three runners in the top 5!

World Champ Amy Sproston!
Guys at the awards ceremony with our silver medals.

For all the logistical trouble that the LOC had the weekend of the race, the actual execution of the race was excellent.  Credit where credit is due.  The course was locked down and as well-manned as I have ever seen a course in my entire racing career.  It would have been perfect if it weren't for the donkeys and a herd of sheep on the course at one point.  But even that was so unusual that it was more entertaining than inconvenient.  Race organizers simply did a great job of making sure the runners didn't have to worry about anything except running fast.  And in the end, that's really what it's all about.  Maybe it's good to not have time to think about the race before you get to the starting line.  Or maybe it was that adrenaline shot I got from being trapped several rows deep at the start.  Whatever it was, I ran really well, so I guess I can't complain.

Post-race treat.  Gelato and free wifi.  Debatable which I enjoyed more.

Thanks to the IAU for the in-race pictures.  I also borrowed a few from Amy. Thanks!


  1. I'm glad you did not let Bozo the Clown beat you at the end.

  2. Great report. Thanks for taking the time to write about your venture and race. (Brett, I'm still laughing about the Bozo comment)

  3. WOW! You did incredibly well, a HUGE congrats to you. Terrific recap too- sounds like there were quite a few obstacles to overcome. I'm seriously impressed- SUCH great results!

  4. Wow what an adventure! Nothing like traveling in foreign country; terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time! Kathy and I are looking forward to our own adventures this June when we head to Hungary for a 212km race! Congratulations David on an awesome, redeeming 100km race! Will be anxiously following your progress at WS100 online.

  5. Congratulations and please keep sharing your excellent reports.

  6. Congratulations David! You had a whole host of folks at Redeemer following you and feeling pretty proud after the results were posted. Thanks for your blog posts--made the race experience come alive. See you soon.

  7. Spectacular, David! Thanks for the report. Great race. Great adventure. And you looked great Tuesday night. Good luck at WS100!

  8. Belated congrats and well done. 5th in the world, and a team silver as well. Nice job, David.