Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Western States Training Camp

To give myself every possible opportunity to be successfully at the Western States Endurance Run, and especially since this is my first attempt at a 100 mile race, I chose to spend Memorial Day weekend at training camp.  The WSER training camp is an organized event where runners can preview 70 miles of the course over this 3 day period.  Aid stations and bus service are provided to participants at a minimal cost. For someone who has never seen the course, and has virtually no ability to train on terrain that even remotely resembles the WS100 course, the training runs can be incredibly helpful.  In fact, the training camp and the Quad Rock 50 miler I did just over 2 weeks ago is the only highly-specific training that I will be able to do before Western States.

First, let me share a little background info on the race and the course for those that are unfamiliar.  The 100 mile trail race will be held Saturday, June 23rd in the Sierra Mountains between Reno, NV and Sacramento, CA.  The 18,000ft of climb that runners face on race day will be difficult, but there is even more descent in total and that aspect of the race wreaks havoc on almost everyone's quads.  The weather also plays a huge role in this race because it can be freezing with snow on the ground at the start, but the canyons can be over 110 deg F in the afternoon.  The course is roughly divided into 4 parts.  The oxygen-sparse high country is the first 30 miles of the race after starting in Squaw Valley and peaking out around 8,750 ft in elevation.  Then comes the tough canyons sections from Robinson Flat at mile 30 to Foresthill at mile 62.  Next is Cal St, a much more runnable section of trail (if your quads are still working properly) down to the Rucky Chucky crossing of the American River.  And then finally, from the river crossing at mile 78 to the finish is another very runnable section if you still have legs.  At training camp we were able to run the last 3 sections of the course.

On the first day, we met at Foresthill Elementary school, loaded up on school buses, and took a 1 hour ride to Robinson Flat (mile 30).  There was a light dusting of snow on the ground above 6,000ft and it was chilly enough that I had on gloves, arm sleeves, and a light jacket.  When I exited the bus, I started looking around for some familiar faces, but I knew very few people and there were probably several hundred runners streaming toward the trailhead.  By the time I took a few pictures and got ready to run, I decided it was unlikely that I'd find someone to run with.  So I headed for the single track.  The first couple miles was VERY slow going.  I didn't realize how many slower runners I had gotten caught behind.  We were crawling.  My first mile split was 18 minutes.  The trail was narrow and the line of runners was very long, but I eventually picked my way through.  After a few miles, the trail opened up to a fire road and I took off looking for someone running around my pace.

I got sucked into running fast on the gradual downhill just like I DON'T want to do on race day.  But this allowed me to catch Salomon teammate Jorge Maravilla and Victor Ballesteros just after the Dusty Corners aid station.  My pace cooled as we instantly fell into good conversation.  So good in fact, that we missed a turn back onto a single track trail and were 2 miles down the road before we realized our mistake.  It was easily corrected though and we turned around to return to the proper course.  Of course, now I'm behind all the people I was stuck behind at the beginning.  But everyone was more spread out now and most people were willing to let us pass.  I ran with Jorge and Victor for a while, but I kept going when they stop to chat with some slower runners.  I wanted to test myself a little on the big descents into the canyons.

Pretty sure we ended up way down there.

5 runners = 3 horses?

The rest of the day was mostly uneventful as I pushed through on my own.  The descents were fun and the climbs up Devil's Thumb and Michigan Bluff were tough.  The small climb up to Foresthill School surprised me a bit, but I shut it down when I ran into Aliza Lapierre (Salomon), Rory Bosio, and Paul Terranova.  I ended the day with 36 miles in 5:39 with 12,000' of descent and 8,500' of climb.  

The second day, we ran from Foresthill to the Rucky Chucky under near perfect weather conditions.  From Rucky Chucky, the official plan was to climb out 3 miles to a staging area where buses would pick up the runners and take us back to Foresthill.  I started with a big group and got some great course advice from veteran Scott Wolfe.  After the first big descent of 4 miles, Scott stopped to run with the fast ladies and I was on my own.  The Cal St. section is much more runnable than the previous day, so I naturally got into rhythm on this section.  I reached Rucky Chucky at 15.5 miles in just two hours.  It was going to take me no more than 30 minutes to climb out, and then I would have had to wait an hour for the first bus back to Foresthill.  So I just decided to run back on the trail.  This was a little risky because I would have to go 15.5 miles with no aid stations as the weather was heating up.  Plus, I would be climbing a significant amount on the return trip.  I made it back in 2:26 with no real issues, but I did run dry a couple miles out.  I tallied 31 miles on the day with about 13,000' of total elevation change.  Then I drove back down to the bus stop/aid station so I could get a hot dog and Coke.

The fast kids.

On Sunday evening, iRunFar and Montrail sponsored a panel discussion and dinner at a local community center.  I won't go into detail about it here because it was all video taped and will be shared on the web soon if you're interested in what was said there.  It was cool to hang out with a bunch of Western States legends and put names with faces.  I didn't learn anything race-changing, but there were many good reminders.  The hard part will be following their advice on race day.

On the third and final day, I was 19 miles ahead of schedule for the weekend, so I decided to relax a little and just enjoy the run.  Jorge and I hooked back up and spent the whole morning together.  This was another gorgeous and runnable section of trail.  I hope to have some legs left when I reach this section during the race.  I will say the last climb to the finish at Placer High School was kind of tough.  I imagine that it's going to be incredibly tough at mile 97 of the race.  22 miles in 3:07 for the day.

Jorge and myself at No Hands Bridge.

Sweet gear.

It was a great weekend and well worth my time.  It's so hard to put a course into perspective until you've run it. The training camp really helped me understand what I'll have to face on race day.  The names of the aid stations have so much more meaning now that I've run through most of them.  Plus, I got in some great training that I wouldn't have been able to do at home.  And I met so many great people who are also passionate about this crazy sport.

I can't wait to do it all again in less than 4 weeks.

This is the goal.  My final destination.


Decisions, decisions.

In my haste to get this post out the door last night, I left out a few details which I think are important…like how I felt or what shoes I wore.  And those two things are actually quite related.  I was excited to finally receive a pair of the Salomon Sense just a few weeks ago.  But because their minimalist 4mm heel-to-toe drop is much lower than I'm used to running in, I knew I would need some time to adjust.  Over the last couple weeks, I’d run in them enough to feel comfortable testing them out on the course this weekend, so that’s what I did.  I spent all of Saturday and again on Monday in the Sense, but switched back to my Speedcross (I raced QR50 and LBL50 in these) to give the legs a break on Sunday.  Overall, my legs felt really good, but my calves definitely noticed the lower profile of the Sense.  My quads seems to handle the descents really well, even though I pushed them on Saturday playing catch-up.  The Sense is a fantastic shoe.  I’m just not sure my calves are ready to handle a 100 mile race in them yet.  I was considering  several options, one being to start in my Speedcross and switch into the Sense at Foresthill.  But when I returned home from California, Salomon had a brand new pair of the S-LAB 5 XT Wings waiting for me on the doorstep.  I had never tried this shoe, and honestly didn’t have very high expectations (I was more excited about the Missions in the box as well), but they felt great as soon as I slipped the pair on my feet.  I was so impressed in fact, that I opted to do an 8 mile run in them that afternoon.  I want to spend some more time in them before States, but the XT Wings could be the middle ground that I’ve been looking for between the Speedcross and Sense.  I probably wouldn’t plan to change this shoe during WS if it’s the one I decide to use.  

By the way, I'm really pleased with how the legs are feeling two days after the training runs.  My calves are still pretty useless, and the legs feel tired in general, but nothing else is even sore.  I hope that's a good sign leading into the race.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Back from the Dead

Quad Rock 50 Race Report

Although I didn't win the race, I came home with some goodies.

I knew it would be different. I knew it was going to be hard. As best I could, I attempted to imagine how tough Quad Rock would be before I started the race. But I couldn't fully comprehend the difficulty until I experienced it. Even so, it served it's purpose. I gained a sense of perspective that I didn't previously have. I learned a ton about myself, about running in the mountains, and about what I need to do to be successful at Western States. So I guess I have to declare it a success even though I was not even close to the winner.

This race was full of firsts for me. My first time racing above 2,000 ft in elevation...the elevation ranged from 5,000-7,000 ft. My first race starting in the dark and using a headlamp. My first ultra west of the Mississippi. And at least 6,000 ft more climbing and an equal amount of descent more than I'd ever run in a race. I sound like a rookie.

Although locals reported it was 85 degrees on Thursday, it was probably 45 degrees at the race start and was even colder on top of the mountain. At least the heat was not another factor that I had to worry about. As the race began in the chilly, pre-dawn darkness, I tried to settle in to a comfortable pace in about 10th place among both 25 miler and 50 mile competitors. I was carrying my headlamp in my hand since I'd only need it for about 20 minutes, and I concentrated on not falling and embarrassing myself over the first couple miles of non-technical trail. At 4 miles the climbing started. I would be either climbing or descending for the next 42 miles until I hit this point on the course again on the reverse trip.

The is the elevation profile compared to StumpJump 50k.

I was with Ryan Burch at the top of the first climb and feeling OK. I was told he was probably the guy to watch, but I wasn't going to try and chase him on the descents because he would fly down and my quads weren't conditioned for that. Sure enough, he bombed the first descent and left me. I chose to be conservative as instructed, but I don't think even Burch could have maintained that kind of pace descending late in the race. At the bottom of the descent we reached our drop bags and I took some time to take off my jacket. Burch was already long gone.

I knew my stomach was not in a good place very early. I struggled to get down a gel before the race even started, gagging on just a partial squeeze. I had some GI distress the day before and it seemed that my stomach still hadn't quite settled. Some of this was probably due to nerves, but it's hard to say how much, although I'm fairly sure it wasn't all nerves. So, I'm running along and not eating like I should have been.

Nutrition is a funny thing. I know that I have to eat, or I'm going to die.  And yet, I can't force myself to eat because it would come right back up. Hindsight may normally be just 20/20, but I think it's better than that when looking back at your ultras. I probably should have stopped for a few minutes early in the race and figured out what I could eat. But it's really hard to do that when you're in contact with the leaders and want to stay there. To make matters worse, the cool temperatures made me feel like I didn't need to drink very much, so I wasn't even getting normal calories from the GU Brew that I was carrying in my hand held. I usually drink coke when the gels aren't working, but I wasn't even doing that. I was doing everything wrong.

Although I hadn't been eating, I was still feeling pretty good after the 2nd climb of six total.  But as I crested the 3rd climb around the 3 hour mark, I was quickly running out of fuel. I was sluggish on the mild descent to the turn around point and knew I was in trouble. As I made the turn at 25 miles to run the course in reverse, I was in 3rd place and about 10 minutes back from Burch who was still leading. I had no power on the climb and hiked much of it. My hamstrings, glutes, and lower back were totally shutting down. After another lethargic descent dropping me to 5th place, I stopped at the mile 32.4 aid station, only having consumed 2 gels in 5 hours of racing.  

As the crow flies, it was only two miles from the start/finish, so it was the logical place to drop. I sat down and had Dylan Bowman try to call Ian Torrence (one of my coaches) to see if he thought I should drop out. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, the cell phone reception was poor and we couldn't get through to Ian. I sat and stretched, rejecting every offer from the very helpful aid station volunteers that were trying to help me. Eventually, I ate an orange section. And then I started feeling hungry. Mark that as another first...the first time I've ever actually had an appetite in any race. I think I ate about 5 more orange sections.  

After hanging around the aid station for 10 minutes, I decided to hike the next climb and see what happened. I left the aid station just as sixth place was coming in. I hiked almost the entire climb and it probably took me an hour. My Garmin went bonkers at this point, so the details are a little foggy.  I had absolutely no power to climb, but I was feeling better otherwise. I was even able to take a gel with no problems. I made it to the aid station at the top and ate more orange sections. Again, I was just heading out as 6th place arrived.

The mountains were shrouded in clouds most of the time I was there.

Anything flat or downhill I could run, but even the slightest uphill I was hiking. It was strange because I had recovered enough to run downhill quite fast. My quads seemingly weren't affected too much by the descents like everyone had warned me they would be. So I hammered down to the aid station at 10 miles to go. My energy was back, and I was even getting my head back in the race thinking I might be able to catch someone over the last 7.2 mile descent if I could just survive the next climb.

I was forced to hike once again on the final climb, and it felt like it took forever. Once I crested, I had some more oranges and was off. I screamed down the fire road thinking I might still have a chance to break 8 hours. I ran well those last few miles, but came up a little short of my new 8 hour goal. I crossed in 5th place at 8:03.

For much of the race, I was not in a good place mentally. But I'm really proud that I was able to address my issues, turn my race around, and finish respectably. I've read that problem solving is one of the keys to finishing well at Western States. Hopefully this experience will give me confidence that I can tackle obstacles on the fly. I learned many other things as well. I've known nutrition is important, but I keep needing to be reminded how important. I've got to get this figured out before States or I'm toast. I learned I'm not a great climber, but I also think my nutrition problems and running the 100k just 3 weeks before QR hurt my climbing ability significantly. On the positive side, I was really pleased with how well I handled the descents, and I'm optimistic that will translate well to Western States.

And finally, you know what else I learned?  How to put on a heck of a race. Nick Clark and Pete Stevenson did an absolutely fantastic job directing Quad Rock in its inaugural year. Their attention to detail was meticulous. It was obvious that veteran ultra runners were running the show. When I direct a race one day, I'm going to do my best to follow their example. I think Quad Rock will quickly become a very popular race.

So while I feel like I could have run a lot better, it really was a pretty good day.  I learned a ton and met a bunch of really cool folks. Contrary to popular belief, it's not just running.

Full results here.

On my shakeout run the day before the race.

Quick gear review:
Shoes - Salomon Speedcross 3.  The best compliment I can pay them is that I didn't even think about them the whole race.  Traction was more than adequate and my feet felt great afterward.
Socks - Swiftwick Vibe One.  Zip, zero, zilch blisters...in a 50 mile race with 22,000ft of elevation change.  Wow.
Hydration pack - Salomon S-Lab 5. This was kind of a trial run and my first time wearing a hydration pack.  I found that it stays glued to my back and didn't bother me the whole race. I really liked being able to carry all my gels, powders and salt tabs on my person especially since I didn't have a crew. Although the bladder was filled with water, I actually didn't drink from it very much. I found that I just prefer drinking from my hand held bottle.
Shorts - Salomon EXO Motion short.  I was skeptical about these shorts at first, but they've definitely grown on me.  No chaffing or any other problems.  I'll be wearing them again.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Quad Rock Preview

In my last race report, I mentioned how I felt like not having a chance to think about the race definitely kept me from getting very nervous, and maybe even helped me run better.  Well, I’ve had plenty of time to think about this weekend’s Quad Rock 50 miler.  I’m plenty nervous.  Because I know it’s going to be plenty tough.

Very few people probably realize how different of a race this will be for me.  The 11,000ft of climb and equal descent that I’ll face on Saturday is by far the most I’ve ever seen, not to mention the altitude that could have a significant impact on my sea-level conditioned body.  To help myself and my readers gain a better perspective, I threw together this plot to show how different Quad Rock is compared to the toughest race I’ve run to date, StumpJump 50k.

Twelve miles shorter than the road 100k, but it will take me much longer to finish.

As you can see, there really isn’t even a comparison.  Quad Rock is all up or down.  There is no flat section on the course.  Since I spent the last couple months focusing on the World 100k, I’m not well-conditioned for this type of course.  I haven’t had a chance to do any significant hill work in the last few weeks because I was concentrating on recovering from Worlds.  Even if I hadn't run the 100k, it’s doubtful I’d be in much better shape for the climbs and descent, because we just don’t have that kind of terrain around Cincinnati.

But, Quad Rock is not the goal.  This is all about Western States.  This weekend’s race is intended to be a hard training run and benchmark effort to see where I stand as I begin focusing my training on WS100.

I don’t have the time and I’m not really qualified to preview the field, so I’ll let Ryan Burch handle that.  He did a good job I think and I don't really have anything to add.  Check his preview here.

It sounds like Leona Divide champ Dylan Bowman (@dylanbo) will be live tweeting from the race if you want to follow along.

Wish me luck.  I may need it more in this race than I’ve needed it in any ultra I’ve done so far.