Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lost in the Sky

I signed up to run Highlands Sky 40 Miler a long time ago. I ran it last year, struggled, but absolutely loved the course and the event. This year we had friends that wanted to join us for a fun weekend in the mountains of West Virginia. They have two kids the same age as ours, so the kids would have fun together. Also, they had never been to an Ultra event and were curious to see what it is like.

When I originally signed up, I did not know yet that I would be running MMT (and subsequently Old Dominion). So, I was coming off two 100 milers and this would be my third Ultra in five weeks. I obviously was not excepting my best effort, but at a minimum would have fun and enjoy the course through the mountains. The race starts on a two mile stretch of road before heading onto the trail. There was a good group of runners upfront including Aaron Schwartzbard, Jeremy Ramsey, Mark Lundblad, and David Frazier. When we hit the first major climb, I knew my legs were too tired to stay at the front, so I hung back a bit. The first half of the course is harder than the second half; with two steep climbs and more technical trail. Knowing this I was not too concerned about not being able to push through this section. Instead, I tried to enjoy the trail and the beautiful scenery. I also had a good time chatting with several of the other runners, including David Ruttum (he went on to finish Third) who will be running UTMB this year and had interesting stories from last year’s canceled UTMB.

Coming into the halfway aid station, Anne, our friends and kids where waiting for me. Seeing I was about 20/25 minutes back, Anne asked me what was wrong. I replied - “Legs are tired, not sure why” (smirk).  I was feeling very good otherwise. I quickly said goodbye and headed onto the “road across the sky.” Last year I blew up during this stretch. It is a rolling dirt road that is fully exposed and you can see about a mile ahead of you at all times. Last year it was about 95 degrees and humid, which made things worse. This year it was pleasantly in the upper 70s. I was able to run this section fairly well and passed a few people. I then headed out onto the Dolly Sods, and was feeling pretty good. Legs were still tired, but over the distance they had loosened up and allowed me to run at a fairly comfortable pace.

Now comes the most interesting part of the day. About 30/31 miles into the race I start to notice that there are no trail markings. This was fine for awhile as there was really know where else to go off the trail. However, I came to a junction. The trail I was on continued straight with a sign that said private property, but there was another trail that led off to the left. I vaguely remembered the personal property sign from last year and saw footprints on the trail. So, I continued forward but soon noticed that the footprints went in both directions (someone else had run up and then run back, I was not the only one that got lost…). So I started to run back to where the last trail marking was. I now came up a couple other runners and none of us knew which way to go. There were no markings to be seen. In the distance I saw the large boulders that we were supposed to get to, but was not sure how. Eventually Bill Young, a 9-year Highlands Sky veteran, caught up to the group of now several lost runners and told us to take the trail to the left. By this point many of the runners were discouraged. I had lost at least 25 minutes, but also know that this is part of the sport and it is just another obstacle Ultra runners must occasionally deal with. I took the leap of faith and decided to run on the unmarked trail. After about two miles I finally hit the bolder section and the course markings reappeared. When I got into the aid station, the race director’s sons were there about to head out to remark this section of the course; apparently some backpackers had removed the original markings.

With that drama out of the way, I just focused on finishing well. I came into the finish in 6th place (exactly as I had been seeded), right around the 7 hour mark. I was pleased with the finish, considering the miles I have put on in the last month. Most importantly I had fun and was able to really just enjoy a good long run in the mountains.

"Would have been here sooner if I knew where I was going"

The rest of the afternoon we spent eating, talking, drinking good wine and watching the other runners come in. Our kids had a blast running up and down the hills and seeing all the overly friendly deer (they come right up to you looking for food). Our friends also had a good time, learned a lot, and were inspired by what they saw. Next year I am hoping they join us again, but this time as participants rather than spectators. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Old Dominion

Old Dominion 100 was a great experience for me. I had a lot of fun, learned a lot, and was able to finish well. I headed out to Woodstock, VA on Friday to attend the race briefing and pitch my tent at the fairgrounds; where the race would start at 4 AM on Saturday. The race has a real community feel to it. I really liked the simple race organization and the exciting encouragement given to the runners to try to finish 100 miles in one day. I spent some time talking to other runners about the history of the race, the course, and recovery (a few of us had run MMT only three weeks ago).

I woke up a little after 3 AM on Saturday, got my gear together and walked down to the start. After a short prayer we were off and running around the horse track, through the town, and up the first climb toward Woodstock Tower. A couple guys took off from the start; I stayed back a bit and ran this early part of the race with Neal Gorman, Eric Grossman, Jon Loewus-Deitch and Patrick McGlade. Somewhere around mile 14 I started up a section of trail that was well marked, but that we had already run…I discovered my error when I came upon some middle-of-the-pack runners. I quickly turned around and corrected myself, but I had lost several minutes. As I worked to catch back up, my stomach started disagreeing with me. A quick stop in the woods and I felt a little better, but now was getting nauseous when I tried to eat. In my head I was thinking “slow down, pull it together, you have plenty of time.”

Kept forgetting to take off the headlamp
At the 50K mark I had caught up to Sean Andrish (who amazingly finished the race in a great time, despite recently having pins removed from his thumb and minor brain surgery). Running through Duncan Hollow I fell a couple times and started getting frustrated. Then the heat of the day started rising. Luckily it never got very hot, but it was hot enough to get dehydrated if you were not careful. There was supposed to be a water station along the trail, but it had not yet been set-up. After this section is the first medical check in and I was disappointed, although not surprised that my weight was down quite a bit. There is a lot of road running in this race and as I headed off the trail and back onto the roads, my right knee started to lock-up making it very difficult to run. As I came into the Four Points aid station at mile 47, I really wanted to drop. I had not been running the race I wanted, was well off the time I was shooting for and it seemed that everything that could possibly go wrong was going wrong. I decided to press on and walked for a long time. It was very depressing to be walking across the big "50" painted on the road. Halfway through and I felt like crap.

Yeah, that's how I felt mid-race:(
I kept walking for awhile and eating as much as I could. At some point I started running again and it didn’t feel great, but I was moving. I came up on Ron Shriver and Jon, who was having quad problems and slowed to talk to them for a few minutes. Around this time I started feeling really good and began really running again. As I came into the aid station at mile 55 I had caught back up to Patrick. I quickly headed out on the ATV trail section and was moving along very well. Around the 100k mark I came up on Dave Ploskanka, who had been leading the race earlier. He was having some stomach issues, so I offered him some ginger and kept pressing on. A little while later I passed Jon Allen – through 65 miles I was back into 4th place. The next section went very well and I was cruising along until I started coming up on the road before Elizabeth Furnace and realized I did not see any course markings. I ran back up hill to where I saw the last one, but there was not another marking to be seen. Apparently, vandals had ripped down two miles worth of markings. After about 25 minutes of wandering, a race official came out and started remarking the course and told me the right way to go. This 25 minute detour ended up effecting 3 of the top 4 runners (Karsten Brown was familiar with the course and luckily knew the right trail).

Feeling good again! 
Heading into the Furnace at mile 75 I saw Anne and the boys for the first time; this was a big boost after the demoralizing effect of my 25 minute detour. I quickly refueled and headed up over Sherman Gap. I can’t complain about this section too much after MMT, but it was much steeper and rockier than I was anticipating. I saw Anne again at mile 87 and from there to the finish it was all roads. These rolling hills took a bigger toll on me than I would have thought, but I was able to run them, albeit slowly. I came back into town, ran to the fairgrounds, did a big loop around the horse race track and crossed the finish line, where Anne and Logan were waiting for me. This was by far the best part of the race – finishing early enough for him to see me cross the finish line in 18:10.

Best part - sharing the finish with Poker
Lessons Learned: MMT helped with this, but OD really put a stamp on my belief that it is possible for me to run all day long. Also, I guess three weeks is enough time in-between 100s - not that I want to make a habit of it. I also have a lot more confidence moving forward in actually racing the distance. If I didn’t go off trail and had run better in the first half I could have run sub-17. I know I am capable of it, and hopefully I can use this experience at Vermont next month.

Gear Talk: I had a hard time deciding which shoes to wear. The course is mostly roads (gravel, paved, jeep or ATV), but there are a few technical sections as well. The NB 101s worked at MMT, but I do not like running on roads with them. I decided on the Montrail Rouge Racers, they are a little more shoe, but still lightweight and do have some cushion. They worked OK – I am just glad it was fairly dry on the course, because my biggest complaint with this shoe is that it does not drain well at all. My feet held up well and just like MMT I had no blisters or toenail issues. I really attribute this to Balega socks. Since I have been running in them I never have foot problems; despite many 100+ mile weeks and running 90% of the time in minimalist shoes.

Overall, I think OD is a fun, low key race that has a great community/family feel to it. It is a race I would recommend and will probably come back to in future years. My hope is that it can reclaim its spot in the Ultra community as one of the traditional, premier 100s in the country without losing the genuine nature of the event. 

Special thanks to Bobby Gill for all the great pictures. I swear every time I made a turn on the course there he was snapping pictures:)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Time to Run Again

Three weeks after finishing MMT, I'll be toeing the line again at the Old Dominion 100 in Woodstock, VA. Same basic area as MMT, but the course does not use the same rocky trails. It is supposed to be a much more runnable course. I feel pretty good going into the weekend. I recovered well from MMT and was able to put in some "normal" training last week. My speed has not fully come back, but that is to be expected and is not really that necessary for a 100 mile venture. I suppose I won't know for certain how ready I am until I am well into the race, but I plan on following the basic tenets: start slow, drink a lot, eat a lot, and keep moving forward. 

The weather forecast seems to have improved from what was originally supposed to be highs in the mid-90s to now in the mid 80s - still hot, but much more manageable. It should be a very good race with some really talented runners: Neal Gorman, Eric Grossman, Karsten Brown, Sean Andrish, Keith Knipling, Dave Ploskanka, and Jon Loewus-Deitch to name a few. There will likely be some very good finishing times, and will hopefully bring more publicity to this race (it used to be part of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning). It will be fun to see how it plays out.