Sunday, June 12, 2011

Laurel Highlands Ultra brings me to my knees...again

Well, the beautiful 77 mile Laurel Highlands Trail brought me to my knees again yesterday. It was supposed to be a story about me avenging last year's failure to finish with a strong run to the end, but instead it ended up at the same aid station that last year's run ended at, mile 52. It has made me question my desire to ever run another race over 50 miles, or 50K for that matter. Quite simply, I would rather not ever feel that bad again.

The first 12 miles were fun. The race left Ohiopyle State Park at 5:30am and began with an 8 mile climb up to the top of the ridge. Around mile 15 my legs started to feel hammered already and my energy levels were weak. I understood the hammered legs because of the hard race I had run the previous Saturday, but the energy level was a concern. Perhaps a contributing factor was that I had only had 4 hours of sleep the night before because it was my son's high school graduation and we didn't get into Ohiopyle until 11:30pm. Who knows? Anyway, I felt a bonk coming on and it was way too early for that. 

I tried to get some food in me right away and was able to hold off the bonk and keep a decent pace going. Before I got to the mile 32 aid station, however, I was really thirsty and hating the Gatorade that I had in my hydration pack. I was craving chocolate milk that I had packed in our cooler, but I had told my wife the night before that she didn't have to provide aid until mile 39. I was hoping I would get lucky and she would be there, but she was not. Anyway, I took a PBJ and some fruit and started to walk away from the aid station. About 50 feet into the woods I felt like I was going to pass out. I turned around and headed back to the aid station and decided to lay down in the grass for awhile. I lay there for at least five minutes and decided I needed to get up and move on. I downed two cups of Mountain Dew (the nectar of the gods) and started walking down the trail again. I felt better and was soon running again.

At this point my stomach was feeling full and sloshy and I did not want to drink or eat anything else. I forced some liquid down occasionally but realized I should probably be hydrating more. In spite of this, I was running well again, and actually passing some people. The dreaded detour was on this leg (the trail bridge over the turnpike is being repaired so the trail makes a 7 mile detour on roads down the ridge, over the turnpike on the road, and then back up the ridge) but I felt much better than last year and actually ran fairly well and felt good (other than my stomach). I got up to the mile 44 aid station, full of confidence and believing that I was going to finish this thing this year (last year I felt terrible here and sat in a chair for 15 minutes). My stomach was still not right and I wasn't able to eat or drink much but I thought that eventually my stomach would start to process what was in it and I would be able to take in stuff again.

After about two or three miles of running on this section, the nausea hit. I stopped running and started walking because the jostling was just too much. I also began to feel lightheaded like I might pass out. At the 18 minute per mile pace that I was walking, I figured it would take me 90 minutes to get to the next aid station. I was just hoping that I could make it. What I probably needed to do was to purge and then start over from scratch. My tendency to pass out when I throw up, however, makes this a little bit of a risky proposition, so I was trying to avoid that. I walked nauseously the whole way to the next aid station, not sure if I was going to make it upright the whole time, especially near the end. The darn trail just went on and on. I tried using my go to ultra mantra, "if I can walk, I can run," but my stomach would always reply, "if you can run, I can throw up and you will pass out."

I decided to lay down at the aid station for a few minutes to see if I would feel any better. I did not. I just felt really, really bad. The next aid station would have been 12 miles away, almost 2.5 hours running or 4 hours walking, and then the finish would be another 13 miles after that. I decided it just wasn't worth it. I wasn't interested in putting my family through it either. I signed my number and my daughter ran it over to the aid station captain and I did the walk of shame to the car and went home.

Darn, darn, darn. This was not the storybook ending. On the way home I told my wife that I never need to do another one of these and I was probably going to drop out of the Vermont 100, which I am already signed up for this July. I just felt so terribly lousy. Shorter races can be challenging and fun; why would I want to put myself though this?

A day's perspective does make a difference. I'm still not sure where I am at with this, but I am still considering doing the Vermont 100. I'm definitely in for the Vermont 50 this fall, which a group of us are planning on running together. Even though I felt bad before mile 50, a 50-miler is much more manageable. When you feel bad at mile 45, you only have 5 miles to go, not 30 or 55. I have some more soul-searching to do to figure out what it is from ultras that attracted me and whether I can get that from shorter races and adventure runs. I tend to be risk-adverse and there is definitely more risk involved in the longer races. There is definitely something appealing, however, about the challenge and the adventure that the day holds. If I could just conquer the stomach issues and I didn't have the nasty passing out issue, it would be so much easier.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rothrock Trail Challenge

I am completely flummoxed. Yesterday was the Rothrock Trail Challenge in State College. This is a 30K trail race that certainly lives up to the "rock" in it's name. It is a very technical, rocky course and even a little scary (to me) in the area of the Shingletown cliffs. This year the locals won the day again, beating numerous sponsored runners in the process. Jacob Loverich repeated as the men's champion, while Meira Minard repeated as the women's champion. It was good weather for racing, and while the course was muddy in spots, it wasn't nearly as bad as it was two weeks ago.

The first half mile of the race is on the road, before it hits the relentless mile climb that is Spruce Gap. This climb is not all runnable for most mortals, definitely including me. About halfway up while I was walking, Meira Minard passed me, and I was determined to stay with her as long as I could this year. Even though I had publicly stated that I would never try to beat her in a trail race again (after Hyner), because she is so good on trails, I had secretly harbored ambitions of doing just that if I could put together a good run some day. I did no trash talking this time, but it was on my mind.

At the top of Spruce Gap, I was about 10 yards behind and managed to keep that distance on the downhill on Kettle Trail that followed. I caught up with her on the flat section at the bottom and we ran together through the first aid station until we started to encounter the mud around Bear Meadows. I passed her on a particularly muddy section at about mile 4.25 and actually started to put ground between us in the continuing mud. I thought at that point, "Well, at least I had the lead over her momentarily, through mile 5." Surprisingly, I soon couldn't hear her anymore. I was running well, uphill and down, and felt good. I was at least going to try to make it hard on those behind me to catch up.

At the second aid station (mile 8), I saw Meira and another runner coming up to the aid station as I was leaving. I knew I had maybe a minute gap, at most. There was a lengthy climb after the aid station and my legs continued to feel good and I was able to run most of it. When I trained in this section, I had walked most of it, so I was quite pleased to be running, and by how little time it took me to get up the mountain. As I didn't hear my pursuers, I thought that I must be putting a little time on them, or at least holding my own.

After aid station #3 (12 miles), the climb of the Shingletown cliffs commences. I was able to pass a runner and felt good at the top. Last year this is the point at which I bonked and had to walk a lot of the ridge. My strategy this race was to take a gel at every aid station and my fueling level felt good so far. I passed another runner on the ridge and caught sight of a runner as we were descending to the final aid station (mile 16). I got within about 20 yards of the runner in front of me and was able to hold this on the final ascent up to Little Flat. I ran the downhill pretty hard, but I didn't push it, because the descent is kind of technical and I didn't want to lose it all at this point. The runner in front of me hammered the descent and I lost time on him. At this point, I didn't care. I finished the descent cleanly, finished the last half mile on the road, and broke the line feeling good.

So why am I flummoxed? I put in a performance that I don't understand. Perhaps it was a fluke, an outlier. I was aiming for a time in the 3:30s, about 20 minutes faster than last year, but instead ran a 3:06, almost 50 minutes faster than last year. I would not have believed I could have run that fast on that course. I kept expecting to be overtaken by the runners behind me, but instead I was passed by no one after the first mile, and I passed numerous runners. It was truly one of my best races, certainly the best one I've ever had on trails, and I don't know why. I just ran and kept pushing myself, but not too hard. I wanted to be steady and not blow up like I had last year. I think part of the reason for the good day is that I truly have gotten better at the uphills and downhills of technical trails.

I finished in 8th place overall, second master's runner. There's nothing like a good race to make you feel full of confidence. I'm sure I'll run into trouble again, maybe even in the next race, but for now I'll enjoy the good feeling.