Friday, July 24, 2009

"A Glimpse of Heaven and a Taste of Hell"


Just a few years back I had sincerely no interest in running an ultra-marathon. Having participated in triathlon, however, I did understand how one "could" arrive at the starting line of a 100mi run. Imagine, you do a sprint-distance triathlon, it's exciting and you start thinking about what else is possible. You do an olympic-distance tri and, whammo!, all of a sudden you find yourself signing up for half-ironman. Pretty soon your "friends" have you talked you into tackling an Ironman, and then another Ironman... Thus I arrived in 2009, asking myself the perennial question, "How tough could it really be?" and naively signed up for my first 100mi trail run. "We're all given a spark of madness," as Robin Williams says, "We must hold on to it." Sounds about right to me.

Training



Training to run 100mi on the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) required that I test myself at a shorter race at altitude. First off, I did the American River 50mi in April. In May, I took some fitness to Reno and rolled the dice at the Silver State 50mi and found that running at altitude was, indeed, tougher than running here on the trails in Sonoma County. That event made me take training more seriously. I've learned, time and again, that it's important to respect the distance for which you're preparing. Being motivated to avoid failure is doing enough to get to the finish line. Being motivated to succeed is doing more than enough to guarantee--barring catastrophe--that you will have enough in the tank to charge to the finish. Or, if the proverbial shit does hit the fan, then your preparation (and/or the gods) might just allow you to reach your coveted finish line.

I conducted my serious training during the first two weeks of June, reaching over 20hrs of training each week. Most of my running was conducted on the trails of Hood Mountain, Sugarloaf, and Annadel parks near my home in Santa Rosa. I heavily emphasized climbing and technical running. I sprinkled in a fair amount of cycling and water-running as well to facilitate active recovery to keep me injury-free. Stress was low, sleep was good, and I was in the flow of my preparation. In June, I took advantage of a 22.2mi run hosted by the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, which ran from Mt. Rose to Spooner Summit ((raceday: mi26.3-mi48.5 & mi76.5-98.7)/See previous post for GPS data). I tapered hard and reduced my weekly run volume to about zilch the week before TRT. I've learned from long-course triathlon that it's better to come in 10% under-trained than 1% over. Plus, I wouldn't have the bike to do any work for me; I would have to RUN the whole way! It was critical that I remain injury free; any minor injury could magnify 10-fold around mile 80. So, I poured as much running as possible into my legs and spent the rest of the time pretty much trying to absorb as much of my training as possible. I hoped it would serve me well.

Pre-Race


Ironman familiarized me with the concept of drop-bags so I conjured up some spray-painted trash bags, so I could find them at the various aid-stations along the way--in the light and in the dark. This seemed like it would work out okay.


To adjust to the altitude I went camping for a week up in Tahoe at the beginning of July. A few days after our return, we headed back up to Truckee to stay at a friend's cabin. Truckee proved to be the icing on the cake of my preparation as I was able to really wind down and relax. I brought my road-bike along and went on two rides to keep my legs fresh. No running but lots of pasta! As the race drew near, I did experience some anxiety and was going a little stir crazy. My pacer (safety runner) for the final 22.2 miles of the race, Michael Cook, arrived in Truckee on Friday afternoon while I was in Carson City with my girlfriend, Amanda, checking in at race registration. All the pieces were in place. But the waiting is always something I could do without!

Race morning


I had faith in Michael's navigating abilities before I really knew him. As fate would have it, he yelled at me once at a trail marathon in Bothe State Park in Napa back in 2004, when I had taken a wrong turn downhill. I fought hard to get back on trail and catch him (I never did. He won the race!). As I moved away from triathlon, Michael and I started running together just prior to him moving his family away from Santa Rosa to Auburn (aka: the endurance capital of the world). We kept in touch. The bug he had once put in my ear about ultra-running started buzzing. When a couple of entries for Cool 50k opened up last year, Michael was quick with the email, urging me to sign up. With Cool in '08 I was hooked. American River, my first 50mi event followed a month later. He invited me up to Truckee last summer where I experienced my greatest run to that point: five hours of running bliss on mountains, the likes of which I'd never experienced in person. Needless to say, it was comforting to know, I'd have a good friend out there with me to run the final quarter of the race, and one that had completed the TRT 100 and others like it, to include Western States 100, and this year, Race Across America (RAAM) solo (See http://seetherace.wordpress.com). Also, I knew it would be motivating to me to have him and Amanda waiting at the Mt. Rose aid station at mile 76.5. Getting to them, ultimately, would prove more difficult than I could have ever imagined.






"A Glimpse of Heaven" -- The first 50

Note: See miles 1-45 GPS data @ http://connect.garmin.com/activity/9463342

The 2009 Tahoe Rim Trail 100 started at 5am on Saturday, July 18th. With the rising sun, about 100 of us started our ascent up to the first aid station 6 miles to the north. My mood was good and I was relishing my morning run just when I clipped a rock going slightly downhill. I attempted roll out of it, but landed on my forehead and actually slid on it momentarily before somersaulting to my feet, dusting off, picking up my sunglasses (and my pride) and getting back to the running. None-too-happy that I had fallen in the first 30min of the race, I doubled my focus then and there and soon fell into a nice and easy rhythm. One guy had shot off the front at the start but otherwise I was with the leaders. My heart-rate was in the 140s and I was content to hold this pace but mindful that I really needed to hold back this first 50 in order to go the entire distance. This new challenge was exhilarating.

Through aid stations, down and back up the 10km Red House loop, and up to Mt. Rose, my focus must have been good--I have little recollection of it. I remember Erik Skaden, the eventual winner, catching up with me about mile 17 as we climbed back up to the Tunnel Creek aid station, where we turned to run north to Mt. Rose. We were in about 3rd and 4th place at the point. I fumbled badly through the Tunnel Creek aid stations and Erik put a minute into me by the time I finally got free and clear. Running up to Mt. Rose, you get to see who's still in front of you, and how far. Jon Olsen, the winner of the 2009 Lake Sonoma 50mi, passed me on his way back south and, smiling, said something to the effect of "Take it easy," which I considered at that point to be very sound advice. Yet, I found myself bounding out of the Mt. Rose aid station listening to the announcer, watching me, state, "Who says this isn't a race?!" I wanted to catch up with the leaders. I was still struggling to find a balance between pacing and being competitive. 100 miles has proven difficult to get my head around.


Cruising on back down through the aid stations, I stayed on my nutrition, taking in plenty of sports drink, gels, and electrolyte capsules. I was still feeling strong, empowered by the tremendous beauty the venue provides. I caught up with Erik and we ran together for quite some time before, around mile 40 or so, I had to let him go because I felt his pace was too fast for me. From there I ran solo. It was starting to heat up too. I arrived back at the Start/Finish (mile 50) to meet Amanda, quite a bit ahead of schedule but feeling in control.


"A Taste of Hell" -- The Second 50)

Jon Olsen and other front-runners had dropped and I found myself leaving the half-way point in 2nd place, but more alarmingly, in unchartered territory. This is where the test would begin. With every step, I was running farther than I had ever run. I was also pressing harder and harder again the limits of my potential, experience, and ability. Will my body hold up?, I thought to myself as I made my way up to the next aid station that would seem like it would never come. How can 6mi seem so, so, so very far? And am I imagining those voices behind me? Nope, those are runners hot on my trail.

Ian Torrence executes his races with precision and patience. With safety runner in tow, Ian caught up and passed me. I was getting really tired. Exhausted. I was walking up a climb. Disgusted with feeling sorry for myself though, I walked a bit faster. Once it flattened out, I ran a bit harder in order to catch up with Ian. I followed behind the two, completely silent. I just followed. I needed their presence to see me through this rough patch. I was fighting to stay positive at this point. Finally, when I started to recover a bit, I broke the miles of silence and offered thanks for letting me tag along on their journey. I asked if they had ever run a 100 before, to which the safety runner replied, "He's done 22 of 'em." I was impressed and grateful to be running with someone I now knew to be a solid 100mi runner. I've come to learn that Ian manages Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland, OR. I watched Hal Koerner, owner of Rogue Valley Runners, win his second Western States 100 in June. Maybe I could get hired up there??? The collective talent is awe-inspiring.

Still pressing on those limits, I matched Ian's pace, which was perfect for me at the time: walk those uphills, cruise the flats and downhills. I noticed, however, I was getting low on water. &%@$!!! I just didn't have enough between aid stations. I underestimated how long it would take me to get from one station to the next. I started drinking more from my super-mixed bottle that was supposed to last me 4 hours. Probably not a good idea but... We were moving through a narrow muddy section. I tripped on a root and went down like a sack of potatoes on my left arm. I bounced back up quickly to try and save face with the boys. They both had turned when they heard my body hit the ground full-force and the air leaving my lungs. My fancy flip-top water bottle exploded and I lost the remainder of my H2O. Sweet. I told the fellas I was okay and since I popped up so quick they barely lost stride. My left arm throbbed a bit and the pesky flies were enjoying my bloodied elbow too much. I examined my arm a bit but was afraid to really take my eyes off of the damn trail for fear of falling, AGAIN. I pride myself on my surefootedness. Why in all-that-is-sacred-and-good had I fallen twice already??? My frustration was not helping matters.

Another mile up the trail, I started feeling cocky (another ill-fated character trait for a ultra-runner to exhibit!) and made the wise decision that Ian was simply going too slowly. This was a race after all and I was in it to win it. Twenty-two 100 milers under his belt or not, I was going for it, albeit relatively slowly. I moved ahead. Ian and his safety runner came into the Hobart aid station at mile 56.2 as I was leaving. I genuinely thanked him for towing me the last several and difficult miles and then hit the trail again bound for Tunnel Creek and the notorious (second time) Red House loop. The 100mi race is one of attrition they say. Survival of the fittest.

Several delirious miles later I arrived at Tunnel. Admittedly, I was indeed, one hot mess of a man. With bottles topped off, I descended the long, sandy road down to the bottom, quads protesting the whole way. I looked back (always a sign of weakness) whenever I could see a ways back up the trail. No sign of Ian. Keep moving. Red House seemed a lot longer this second time through. This is the lowest part of the course. There's standing water, so flies, and mosquitoes (what's the plural of nemesis?). Drink you fool, keep drinking. Those mental demons were dancing a jig in my head. Keep turning those legs over. Meandering, I understood why so many athletes arrive at the water stop at the bottom of Red House, take a seat, and lifelessly stare into the woods: "Lovely, dark, and deep," as the poet Robert Frost once wrote. This is where I found myself, "With miles to go before I sleep."

Red house is what is claims to be: a red little house; just a little shack really. The water stop was manned with three people. Apparently there was some wacky theme to it--Geico Cavemen meet Deliverance??? The guy helping me, in his caveman garb, recognized my forlorn state and began consoling me with stories of his own trials and tribulations on this course. He said he'd once been in the same place and ended up dropping once he climbed back up to the Tunnel aid station at mile 67.3. I sat there for a while longer contemplating my situation. Then, two runners came into sight approaching the water stop. One of them was literally bounding, happy even. How was this possible?

Competitive instinct still intact, I was up without knowing it and moving (walking) in other direction. My caveman attendee walked out with me and up a 100yd climb back to the main road. Out of the Inferno. I found I missed my caveman once he was gone. Walking is so slow. I knew runners were closing in on me. Second place would soon be a memory. Downed logs on the side of the trail looked comfortable. I sat down for a few seconds. I walked. I would stop and place my arms on my knees, hunched over and looking upside down through my legs at the inverted trail behind me. No sign of happy runner but I knew he was coming.

I wasn't out of hell yet. Actually, it had only just begun. Nausea kicked it full force and I hurled the water I took in at the water stop. I buckled. On the side of the trail I found myself on my hands and knees on the ground. I wretched. My stomached churned as I writhed in agony in the dirt. The flies were all over me. This was a complete and utter meltdown. Purged once more of water and nutrients, I picked myself up and continued moving forward. This wasn't any fun.

A moment later, Jasper Halekas, a former champion of TRT 100, moved on by with another runner. I'd seen Jasper a lot this year. I've come to really admire (envy?) his athletic ability. I enjoyed chatting with him in the early miles of American River and Silver State 50 this year, that is, before he he ran away from me. Fortunately for me today, he was serving in the role of safety runner, who was now running past me. Jasper had just placed 4th overall in a time of 16:56 at Western States 100 just three weeks earlier. And here he was again running 50mi in a support role. As they moved on by, capturing second place, Jasper told me I had to hang in there because once the sun sets things would improve. I thanked him and took his words as a promise. What did I know? I'd never been in this awful situation before. It was hard to believe I would finish this thing. How could I? My legs were shot.

In third now, I moved, ever so slowly up each trail with the only goal of reaching the next oasis otherwise known as the Tunnel Creek aid station. The long sandy climb began, adding insult to injury. Halfway up, Ian Torrence with safety runner in tow, passed on by. There was no way I could go with him. The tacit understanding that I was no longer a threat lingered in the air for a moment. I witnessed Ian's metronome pace carry him up that blasted dune of a road to the aid station above.

When I checked in at Carson City the day before, I weighed in at 154lbs. A white band was placed around my wrist with three weights written in red marker (low) and green marker (high). The lowest red value was 143lbs--representing a loss of 7% of my body weight. I had been having some trouble with aid station volunteers earlier in the race since I was weighing in at these various checkpoint a little on the low side. I probably descended Red House at about 149lbs. As I stepped on the scale after finally completing Red House I estimated accurately what the scale would read before the numbers appeared on the screen--142.8lbs. My race was over.

Unbeknownst to me, the aid station at Tunnel Creek was stocked this day not only with foods and drinks to keep a body going, but also staffed--purposefully--with folks that have an uncanny ability to nourish not only a broken athlete's body, but his mind and spirit as well. Way under weight, it was agreed, unanimously, that I would not be going anywhere for a while ("never" sounded good to me).

I had a seat while overzealous aid station attendees were on me like those despicable flies down below in the bowels of Red House. Their actions, at the time, seemed futile to me. I mean, I looked bad but I wasn't in any real peril. These folks were buzzing around me as if I had a real shot at getting back into the mix. Insanity. No doubt I underestimated (see the theme?) the human beings I was dealing with here.

Lon Monroe, race director for the Silver State 50/50, was on me like, well, I'll dispense with the analogy. Lon was bound and determined to overhaul my day and get me back on trail. I spent well over an hour at Tunnel Creek wrestling with the idea of how I could continue on. I moved around a little bit. I ate and drank. The nausea was debilitating. Finally, I wretched for the third time that day, with everyone at the Tunnel Creek aid station in attendance. Fabulous. But, time heals all. My bout with nausea was ending. My skies seemed to be clearing as the sun began to set. I wasn't yet convinced I could carry on though. Lon was as adamant as ever. Folks there told me I was out of luck since this was a "no-drop" aid station. I got the message and, just to humor everyone, I started putting on my warm clothes and headlamp. I listened to Jenny Capel, course-record holder of Silver-State 50mi, TRT 100 finisher, and Western States runner, tell me about her experiences with the 100. TRT co-race director George "Squirrel" Ruiz's encouraging words left an impression as well. I was in good company.

I couldn't let these people down. For that matter, I couldn't let Michael or Amanda down. I couldn't let the athletes I coach down. I couldn't let my students down. And, of course, the biggest one, I couldn't let myself down. I'd have to live with my first DNF (Did Not Finish). What would that be like? I didn't want to know. I left Tunnel Creek, with over 50km left to run, absolutely convinced I could finish this thing. I am grateful to those wonderful people for their help and tremendous inspiration. I jog-trotted out of Tunnel with some applause behind me. Once I was out of sight though I started walking. Whew. At least I was moving again.

The sun was down but not forgotten over Lake Tahoe as I stopped along a ridge and stared out across the expanse, at the lake, the mountains, and the sunset sky--a glimpse of heaven, I thought and then smiled. "Remember this" I said to myself. Getting to Amanda and Michael was now priority number one. Jasper was right, post-sunset: I was getting another shot. He made good on his promise.

The first runner I saw was the leader, Erik Skaden, who cruised by with his safety runner in the dark now. "Way to hang in there," Erik offered as he moved southward in the darkness, his victory finish still some 15mi off. I was grateful for his words. Now, how many other people are up ahead in these dark woods?

The Mt. Rose aid station eventually arrived and as I proceeded into it, I realized I was over an hour and a half late and knew Amanda and Michael had been worried about me all that time. After all I had left Amanda at mile 50 in second place. About 10 runners had come through, but no Bob.


I first saw Michael and asked him where Amanda was when I saw her behind him. Our hug was energizing and we moved over to the aid station where I weighed in at about 145lbs (I would depart 10min later at about 147). I successfully put down a bottle of Amino Vital and a bottle of water as well as two gels and an electrolyte capsule on the way up from Tunnel. No nausea. Cool running in the dark forest--Oh how I love thee!

Michael quickly assumed his roles and responsibilities as safety runner and took over as my Mt. Rose version of Lon Monroe. I can't get away from these people! Can't I just take a nap already?!? But I was more kidding around now, just absolutely giddy to still be simply in the event. I had no thought about where I was in the race, only that I was still here, still in it, still in that sweet place I have grown to love so much: the time and space between the start and finish of a race.


I said good-byes to Amanda and told her I would get this last stretch done as soon as possible. We had a mini-vacation to attend to in Squaw Valley. And Michael had to go get his buddy Pete to transport him over to the Donner Lake Triathlon as soon as he was done with his safety runner job. I had held the show up for too long. We got out of Dodge in earnest.

Running fairly well now, I started to internalize that I had over 22mi left to run. Gawd! I remembered Lon's caloric advice back at Tunnel. I started to eat the solid food I picked up at Mt. Rose: a Rice Crispie Treat, M & M's, pretzels. I sipped on my water bottle and got down some gels. We were moving at a pretty good clip, relatively speaking. We finally got back down to Tunnel where I was able to check in with the gang that nursed me back to health. I was thanking everyone again for their help when Lon came up and told me I looked like a new man and that I was in about 9th place and if I kept running I might catch more folks. I appreciate Lon's single mindedness: fight and stay in the race. Michael and I were off.

Michael is a marathon pacer for Clif Bar and paces all over the country. His next one at the Disneyland Marathon is coming up. He executed his role perfectly. He understands the competitor's psychology well. He knew where I was, mentally, and what I needed to get back to where I needed to be, that is, pressing against the limits of my potential. With our headlamps lighting the way, we ran.

Runners were coming in the opposite directions and we would exchange words of encouragement as we passed. Occasionally, we would catch up with an athlete and his safety runner. Each time we did, there was no fight from them. I was reminded of my state of mind and body earlier. We ran past the carnage and along the exquisite Tahoe Rim Trail with our headlamps lighting up the marvelous trail in front of us.

As a source of pride and a token of thanks to Michael for running with me, I "ran" most all of the climbs along our trek back south. I was looking forward to the Snow Valley Peak climb since it's only about 7mi from there to the finish. My legs had done so well for me today, which is testament to my preparation (pat on back). This source of pride carried me forward, along with plenty of caffeine.

Passing another runner we headed into the Snow Valley aid station, fueled up and began a 5mi descent with plenty of switchbacks down to the Spooner Summit water stop. I'd fallen, hard, on two occasions today. A third, on this trail, could prove to be devastating. I know all too well, that the race isn't over 'til it's over. Most of the conversation from that point on was one-sided--Michael telling me how well I was running, how strong, how fast; exactly what I needed to hear. With no runners in sight to chase down and pass, Michael suggested I work hard to the finish since I was close to his finish time there when he ran two years ago. Perfect. Something to strive for. Michael's a good friend and I have great respect for his athletic ability. Therefore, the idea of running down his former self--who was still ahead of me--was thrilling, not to mention a smart and selfless thing to do. Perhaps I'll have the opportunity to do the same thing for someone someday. It was effective.

Our run from Mt. Rose to the finish was pure magic with some pain mixed in for yours truly. We finished at 3:45 in the morning. It took me 22hrs and 44min to complete 100miles of mountainous running (within a minute of Michael's time in '07!). I finished in 6th place. Jasper was still at the finish line, his runner I believe had come in second. Jasper has done this course in an amazing 18:16! Erik Skaden won again this year in 20:27. Ian Torrence ended up in 4th, posting a 22:02. The first female, Bree Lambert would arrive later in 23:42.2.


I was in good enough shape to really savor my finish and enjoy the people there. We packed it up soon though, and headed over to Squaw Valley, get Michael to his car, and get us started on the path to recovery and our mini-vaca. I did want to die on the ride over to Squaw. Amanda's a good driver but the speed of an automobile seemed way out of control when juxtaposed with my pace over the last 24hours! We arrived safe and sound. I have never been as grateful. We bid Michael farewell and retreated to the warmth and serenity of our mountain retreat, where I reluctantly drew a bath and began washing the filth from my weary body. The king-size bed seemed an island with the promise of splendid sweet slumber. And that it was. I had been up for almost 30 straight hours.

Post-race


I emerged at noon to find Amanda putting her nursing skills to work by nagging me to keep drinking and eating to facilitate an expeditious recovery. I was in a surly state of mind as we hopped back in the car and made the windy pilgrimage back over to Carson City for the awards ceremony. It was good to see everyone again. I've never been more proud of receiving finisher's medal (in this case a belt-buckle). I had wanted to finish in under 20hrs but my secondary goal was to finish in under 24. Done.


We enjoyed the procession while a fat burrito worked its magic bringing me back to life. I felt a strong connection to those people with whom I had the honor of running with. Almost half of the field had dropped but even those I spoke with who did were in good spirits and said they'd be back to try again. I agreed it was an experience worth repeating, if only to see if I could do it better, faster, and smarter.


Amanda and I could not have asked for a sweeter place to recover than the Village at Squaw Valley. Another wonderful friend and athlete had arranged for us to stay at his place to which we are as grateful as we are to Michael Cook and his wife Nicole for providing us with the opportunity to stay at their place in Truckee in the days leading up to the race. It made all the difference.

Wrap Up - Successes, Great Efforts, & Areas to Improve-

TRT 100 Successes: I finished my first 100mi trail run in sub-24, battling back to finish 6th place overall. I didn't let down those that worked so hard to get me back in the race. My preparation served me well. I ran the final 22 well thanks in big part to Michael Cook.

TRT 100 Areas where I showed great effort: 1. Letting Eric Skaden go, on the way back down to the halfway mark and running my own race from there. 2. Running with Ian Torrence. 3. Not dropping out at the Tunnel Creek aid station (mile 67.3). 4. Pushing to Mt. Rose in the dark to reach Amanda and Michael. 5. Pushing with Michael up and down the hills on the way to the finish.

TRT 100 Areas where I need to improve: 1. Pacing. I need to slow it down some and be more consistent with pace. I have a much more educated understanding of my pace and felt I've come a long ways now toward dialing it in. 2. Nutrition/Hydration. Solid fuels are a must, especially during that second 50 when the stomach is tired of sports drinks, gels, and electrolyte capsules. I need to carry enough water to get from one aid station to the next. I need to spend a bit more time consuming some solids at aid stations while my bottles are being filled. This is not triathlon. My mindset must change in order to improve. 3. As I focus on dialing in my pace for the 100, I need to focus on the trail in a conscious effort to prevent falling; two falls were two too many. 4. I will improve my drop bag situation and make them more suitable to the situation; spray-painted trash bags were visible but unnecessary and impractical.

Next Steps


Just a day after TRT we were walking up to the trail at Squaw Valley where the Western States 100mi Trail Run begins. Apropos? This is the primary objective a for next year. I will do everything possible to qualify, or win, an entry into this most prestigious endurance event. Cool 50K, AR50, Miwok 100k in 2010 will be opportunities to attempt to qualify for "States," as Western States is oft referred to as by its veteran participants. Additionally, I hope to run in the inaugural Santa Rosa Marathon on Aug. 30. I also hope to run another trail ultra in the form of the Sierra Nevada run in September. I should have some good fitness to do very well there. For now though, it's rest and recovery and focusing on my coaching responsibilities. Full Vineman is only a week away! I have three athletes racing.Thanks for reading. I'll see you out there soon.

Point Positive! :)