Friday, June 15, 2012

Three Strikes and I'm Out

What makes a person persevere at one time and quit at another? The Laurel Highlands 70 mile trail race was this last weekend, a race that I have DNFed the last two years in a row. The title of this post was supposed to be "Third Time is the Charm" but, alas, it is not.

After my DNF at Massanutten, I wasn't sure that I wanted to do this one again. In the end I signed up and tried to make the necessary corrections to be successful this time around. Last year I attended my son's graduation the night before and didn't get into the motel at Ohiopyle until midnight. This year I got there at 8pm and was in bed by 9pm. I got pretty good sleep the week before and was feeling good overall. This year I had pacers waiting for me at mile 46. My brother Jim and friend Sonya were there and would take turns pacing me until mile 57, where Tara would be waiting to pace me the rest of the way. I had spent a few weeks trying out a new nutrition/hydration plan and felt that I would be able to stick with it for a good part of the race. The only negative thing going in was my hard effort at Rothrock the Saturday before. I knew my legs wouldn't be completely recovered but felt that my legs have never been the issue at ultras, just my stomach.

It was nearly a perfect day for running. The race started at 5:30am and the temperature was in the mid 50s with highs to be in the lower 80s. We left Ohiopyle and hit the trail and I settled into a comfortable mix of walking and running. The bulk of climbing at Laurel Highlands is in the first 7 miles as you scale the ridge. The rest of the race stays mostly on the ridge, although the course still rolls somewhat and there are some tough, although relatively shorter climbs.

I rolled into the first aid station feeling good, in fourth place overall. I wasn't expecting to be that close to the front as I really wasn't pushing it, at least I didn't think so. I was mixing my own drink so it took me a few minutes to get that done and a few guys caught up with me while I was there. The next aid station was at mile 26, in the Seven Springs area. I was keeping up with the hydration/nutrition fairly well, drinking about 18 ounces of an Infinit mix every hour. This was to supply my hydration, calories and electrolytes in an easy to process mix. I did start to notice, however, that I was always on the edge of my belly feeling full. I kept sipping at it, but couldn't drink very much at a time because I felt slightly bloated. I wasn't too uncomfortable, but it was kind of bothersome.

My legs definitely felt heavy when I got to mile 26, but I kind of expected that. My energy was decent and my stomach was decent, so I couldn't complain too much. I was still running in 4th place and didn't have anyone behind me that I could see. There was some pretty good climbing to get into the aid station at mile 32 and I was pretty tired when I got in. During the next leg I really started to get heavy legs and my stomach became more bothersome. I wasn't nauseated but I was full and it just didn't feel great. I had to keep loosening the belt from my hydration pack because it kept getting tighter. I decided I would sit in a chair for a few minutes and rest my legs and maybe let my stomach do some processing. I sat down at the mile 39 aid station and drank some Ginger Ale and just chilled out for about 10 minutes. Numerous runners passed me here. Suddenly I felt bad and got up and went behind the aid station 10 yards and started throwing up. Fortunately, I didn't pass out, but I did throw up a large volume of liquid.

After I was done vomiting, I went back and sat in the chair, trying to decide what to do next. I wasn't sure what I should try to eat or drink. I had them fill my bottles with ice and water and tried to eat a little PB&J. I definitely felt better to get rid of that stuff in my stomach, so I had some more Ginger Ale and headed down the trail. It was only 7 miles to the next aid station, where Jim and Sonya were waiting, and I thought I could get there. I knew I was done with the Infinit mix and probably wouldn't be able to eat anything else, so I was running on borrowed time.

I definitely did not get any better in the next few miles. I did a lot of walking. At one point, I just sat on a log for a good 5 minutes and decided I would drop out at the next aid station. I didn't want to do it, but my legs were so heavy and I just wasn't making good time. I wondered what the heck I was doing here and just wanted to end the suffering. It wasn't fun. I eventually got back up and stumbled down the trail as it was my only way out. About 4 miles out from the mile 46 aid station, I stumbled across Jim and Sonya. They were getting in some additional mileage before pacing me in preparation for their first 100 mile race in the fall. I was so happy to see them and it definitely lifted my spirits. I told them I was probably going to drop and Jim started working on my psyche to change my mind. I started to feel a little better, just talking to them and being with them, so I started to run again on the flats and downhills. I definitely rallied a little. I began to think again that I could do this. They let me run ahead, as they weren't supposed to be pacers yet, and I rolled into the next aid station.

In a last ditch effort to get some calories in my system, I had told my brother to get me a milkshake. I knew there was an ice cream place a mile down the road from the aid station because I had milkshakes in defeat the last two years. He wondered whether that would be good for my stomach but I was hoping it would rally me and give me some needed calories. I sat down and waited for him. He eventually showed up with the milkshake and I drank most of it. It did taste good, but my stomach was fairly full again. I was starting to have second thoughts about continuing, because I still wasn't feeling all that well. I stood up and immediately felt a little light-headed. I went behind the aid station and felt the nausea coming again. I kneeled down and threw up another large volume of liquid. I decided to lay down for awhile to see what would happen. I lay there awhile and then my left calf, which had been bothering me since mile 5, started to cramp. I thought about the 11 miles I had to next aid station and how long that was. Jim tried every trick in the book to convince me to continue, including saying, correctly, that I only had to go 1 mile, not 11. I still wavered a little, but then I pulled the trigger. Done. DNF. Dang.

In retrospect, I wimped out this time. In my other DNFs at Laurel Highlands and Massanutten, I had real concerns about my safety. I was worried about passing out in the middle of the trail. This time, I felt better (despite the vomiting) than I ever had at this point in the race before. My legs, however, were heavy, I was suffering and I just wasn't having fun, so I quit. I couldn't get over the 11 miles to the next aid station. If it had just been 5 or 6, I think I would have kept going. I didn't want to be 5 miles in and want to quit and have to walk it out.

So what is the answer to my question in the first paragraph? I think part of it was that I asked myself why I was running this race and I had no answer. At my first 100 at Burning River, I felt worse between miles 60 and 80 than I did here (I threw up twice and passed out there), but I never questioned why. I've seen pictures of myself and I looked terrible. Even though I was concerned that my condition would force me out, I don't remember even considering dropping out. I just kept walking/running. I was there to conquer the 100 mile distance and complete the race. At the Vermont 100 last year, I felt pretty bad between 75 and 85 (although probably the best of any of my ultras longer than 50 miles). For some reason, I don't think I questioned "why" there either. I just kept going.

At Massanutten and Laurel Highlands, I did a lot of questioning why I was doing this stupid thing which made me feel terrible. I've already completed the distance so what am I trying to prove. I once said that if running trails for 20 miles was fun, running them for 100 miles was just more fun. I'm going to say now that just isn't true. 20-30 miles is fun, 100 miles is just 65 miles of suffering after the fun part (in my experience the last 5 miles have been pure joy and transcendance).

For most people who try it, running a 100 mile race will be the most difficult thing they ever do. You have to understand that going into it. Is the amazing feeling of accomplishment at the end worth the suffering? I think it is one time, for sure. Beyond that, I'm not so sure. Especially in light of some recently revealed research on endurance running and what it does to the body, I'm not sure that it is a good idea to do a lot of these long ultras. I've never said that I want to, and only have done a couple a year. I'm not sure that I want to do any more. Certainly not without having a good reason "why" going into it (apparently "finishing what you started" is not a good enough reason for me). I think I would even write it down in my own handwriting so my crew could produce it at the appropriate moment, when I have "trail-brain" and just want to end the suffering.

I am signed up for one more long ultra this year, the Oil Creek 100 in October. I was planning to run it with Jim and Sonya, to support their effort. Now I am wondering if I would be better support if I just crewed them and paced them at the end. If I don't know why I am doing it, I might just drag them down in the last 50 miles.  On the other hand, I will most likely feel a lot better at a slower pace and might be able to help them through the rough spots, although they will get tired of me telling them to "just walk faster."

These are a lot of ramblings and I don't have all of the answers. It would be so much easier if I didn't have so many stomach problems. I know it is common, because of the body using its resources to support running instead of digesting food, but it just makes it miserable. I'm in no rush to figure it all out right now. For now, I am busy just kicking myself for quitting last weekend. That will keep me occupied for awhile.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Rothrock Challenge

Road into aid station 3. Lister, Marshall, Kimmel and I.
 I love the sound of rain on a metal roof. In fact, it is one of the reasons that I put a metal roof on our house. Friday evening the heavens opened and the cacophony of sound overhead was deafening. I sat there, enjoying the sound, and also wondering what this was doing to the trails in Rothrock State Forest. The Rothrock Challenge was Saturday and there are sections of the course that are always wet to begin with. Bear Meadows is always swampy and this rain was certainly creating shoe-sucking, runner-eating mud. Oh well, the best thing to do is to embrace the weather you are given and go with it. There would not be any effort to keep my feet dry Saturday; I was going to enjoy wallowing in the mud.

The day dawned cool and overcast. Temperature was ideal in the mid-50s with some wind and clouds. I drove the half hour in to Rothrock and got there about 7:00am, an hour before the race start. After getting my number I relaxed in the car until about 15 minutes before the start. After a 5 minute warmup I went to the start and waited with the other 350 runners for Craig Fleming, the RD, to start the countdown. My plan was to go after it today and see what I could do this year. Last year I ended up in 8th place but I hadn't run too hard from the start.

The race started and we were off. The first half mile is on road so there is some time for the mass of people to thin out a bit before hitting the single-track and the first brutal climb up Spruce Gap. A group of 3 runners, including last year's winner, local runner Jacob Loverich, and last year's 2nd place finisher Jason Bryant, broke out in front with a larger group of us following. We hit Spruce Gap and thinned out even more quickly. I got passed by a couple runners part way up, including the first place woman. I was disappointed to see that it wasn't Meira Minard, but thought she would still have plenty of time to catch up. Towards the top of the climb I passed a couple of the guys back and fell in behind the first place woman. Not far in front of her were two other local runners that I am often chasing, David Lister and Eric Marshall.

Me and David.
We finally reached the top and started the rocky, steep descent that is Kettle Trail. I just tried to keep vertical on this descent (the rocks were wet and slippery) and then took the sharp right at the bottom onto Longberger Trail. I felt good and was trying to push myself a little. I didn't pass anyone and we kept our order going into the first aid station at Bear Meadows. The next stretch around Bear Meadows was the wettest. Some of the "puddles" (most of them were too large to call puddles) were fairly deep and there is no way around them because the Rhododendron are close on both sides. It was kind of fun splashing through these and I let out a whoop at one point.

After the climb out of Bear Meadows we joined the Mid-State Trail and occasionally I could see the first place woman in front of me. After awhile I suddenly came across Eric Marshall. He was trying to fix some of the trail flagging (Eric does a lot of the work on helping to maintain the trails and set up the race) and said that someone must have pulled some of it down. I had noticed that we were in a section that wasn't as well marked as this race normally is. I suggested there wasn't much he could do at this point and to just tell them at the next aid station. He ran off in front of me and I tried to hang onto the back of him.

David and Me.
We soon hit the next descent and I was able to catch glimpses of Marshall, Lister and the first place woman on the way down. We got to the bottom and all ran up the short stretch of dirt road to the second aid station together. I filled up my water bottle and headed up the trail after Lister and the first place woman. Eric stayed and was telling the aid station volunteers about the trail marking situation. I felt a little guilty about passing him while he was trying to get the trails fixed but I figured he would be back on me shortly.

After another climb we started the long descent into Shingletown. I still felt good so I started pushing it. I passed the first place woman and Lister in one dash and then pushed a little more to try and put some distance between us so that I could get out of sight. Eventually I couldn't see them anymore so I kept hammering. We climbed up above Shingletown, followed the ridge for a little while, and then started the steep descent into the 3rd aid station. It was then that I heard something behind me again and turned around and saw Lister not far behind. I tried to hurry, took a wrong step and careened off the trail into the boulders. Luckily, I was able to keep my footing and not crash, and I recovered and got back on the trail. At the aid station I stopped to refill my water bottle and David dashed past and started the ascent up the boulders of the Shingletown cliffs.
I just can't shake him!

I followed quickly and caught up with him. We chatted as we climbed, but I was concentrating on my line up the boulders and soon pulled ahead of him. This climb kicked my butt the first year that I ran this and I bonked at the top. I felt pretty good this year and was able to start back up pretty quickly at the top. I knew David was right behind me so I was pushing pretty hard. Of course I ended up kicking a stone really hard with my right big toe and bit the dust. I was able to catch myself with my hands and didn't hit the ground too hard, but my toe definitely hurt. I scrambled back up and continued on. Every time I looked back, David was right there, about 10 yards behind. I could not shake him, and I was pushing pretty hard. I didn't know how long I would be able to keep this up.

A descent off Bald Knob, a run along the creek, and then an ascent back up to the top, and he was still there. It seemed like I could put a little ground on him on the climbs, but it wasn't by much. I was not walking much of the climbs at this point, because I didn't think I could afford to. A quick descent followed by a short climb brought me into the last aid station, with David about 20 yards behind. I didn't stop for water this time (I had a enough left in my bottle) and started right up the last ascent. I had been hoping that this was steep enough that I could walk a lot of this but when I got on it I realized that I should be running most of it or I would be giving away time. Darn! I had been pushing pretty hard for awhile now and was ready for a break, but I realized there would be no more breaks until the end if I wanted to have a chance against David. He has generally owned me in races, especially at the end, and I wanted a chance to come out on the positive end for once.

Last climb out of aid station 4.
I was not gaining ground, however, and when I started on the last descent he was 20 yards behind me and slowly gaining ground. I ran as hard as I could, on the edge of losing control, but darn him, he was still there. We got almost to the bottom and I yelled back to him something about giving me a break but he was relentless. This was exciting, I have to admit, and I have rarely been in this close of a competition at the end of a long trail race. We hit the pavement for the last half mile and he was right behind me. As we started up the gradual incline of the road, he pulled up beside me and I complimented his running, all the while trying to think of the appropriate strategy to beat him in the end. With 1/4 mile to go, I didn't want to lost touch with him, and he didn't seem to have enough left to bury me, so I hung on. I thought that I'd wait until we make the turn with 100 meters to go and then pull out everything that I had left. We hit the turn and I bursted with everything that I had left. I quickly gapped him and just kept sprinting until I crossed the line.

Sprint to the finish.
I kept running while taking off my watch and timing chip, hit the dock of the lake and jumped into the lake. As I was going under, I realized that I was out of breath and needed to breathe so I opened my mouth and tried to breathe while I was under water. Big mistake, obviously. I took a mouthful of lake water, panicked a little and tried to get to the top as fast as I could. I came up sputtering and coughing and breathing hard. Eventually I got my breath again and got closer to the shore where I could stand. I just stood there in the water, bent over, and trying to recover from the sprint and the water in the lungs.

After a minute, I walked over and shook David's hand and congratulated him on a relentless race and a fun morning. I was surprised that I had come out on top this time, and that I felt so good and had so much left at the end. After the failure of Massanutten, this one felt good. This is one of the reasons that I love trail running. The competitors are good people, overall, and it has been fun competing with guys like David (and women like Meira) this last year, even if they have kicked my butt most of the time. They are fun to run with and fun to compete against. This is also a great, well-organized race, and the Flemings and volunteers are to be congratulated for the great job that they do.
Tired, but happy.

Speaking of Meira, she ended up having a tough day and took a big spill early on and injured her back. She did finish but was unable to successfully defend her title. Jacob Loverich was able to successfully defend his men's title. I finished in 4th place, about 15 minutes behind him. I changed clothes, got a massage, ate some good food, took advantage of the Sheetz truck, and then watched as some of my friends came in, one after the other. It was a good day for me and gives me a shot of confidence going into the Laurel Highlands 70 miler this weekend. Thanks to Jeff Lister and John Fegyveresi for the photos.