Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Of Mountains and Mole Hills: A Bighorn 100 Race Report

Bighorn was my second mountain 100 of the several I want to complete. My first was Leadville and now having done Bighorn I think Leadville was a good introduction to mountain 100s because, and I hate to say this, it is comparatively easy. Don’t get me wrong, Leadville is a hard race and for some it may be completely out of reach. At Leadville you must be able to cope with the elevation, which through no fault of their own, some people can’t. You also have to deal with the cutoff times, which most people agree are a bit tight for the level of difficulty of the course.

However, there are large sections of Leadville that are very runnable, most of the climbing and descending is pretty manageable and the hardest climbs, up and down Hope Pass, contain a fair number of switchbacks. While this may sound obvious, the switchbacks really help take the edge off the steepness of a climb and, at a minimum, they change things up a bit giving you a stronger sense of forward progress.

I have to premise any comparisons of the two courses by saying that I did not run the “real” bighorn course but rather an alternate snow route, which incidentally was comprised of at least 85% of the normal course. I also ran Leadville in a perfect year. A friend of mine, Kurt, said I was almost cheating by running Leadville under such excellent conditions and of course the conditions on the day of the race can make all the difference.

In any case, the Bighorn course has few of the nice features of the Leadville course. Where Leadville has many runnable sections Bighorn has an equal measure of sections that few people are really able to run. The cruelest of which comes toward the end of the race between the climb called “The Wall” and the TR TH aid station. This section of trail is one you cover at the start of the race and you know it is steep but you are fresh so it’s a really good warm-up and you are slowed down enough that you can just enjoy the wildflowers and the gentle warmth of the Wyoming sun. However, on your return trip you quickly discover “Wow, this is freakishly steep!” and much of it is hard to run down. A fellow runner told me after the race “I felt like my knees were going to explode” and this was from a guy who was in the very respectable 26 hour finishing time frame.

Of course the corollary to the “unrunnably” steep downhills in some areas is the unrunnably steep uphill. I read once that the main difference between trails on the east coast and the west coast is that the trails on the east coast were mostly made by people and so they tended to go straight up the sides of hills whereas the trails in the west often originated with animal trails so they tend to have switchbacks and meander up and down the sides of mountains. Apparently the humans and animals in the Bighorn Mountains didn’t get this memo because there wasn’t a single switchback on the trail. The only deviations from straight up the mountain that any trail took were out of necessities such as avoiding a boulder, going to a narrower point in a stream or simply changing direction. The unbridled enthusiasm for going both straight and vertical that is exhibited by the people of the Bighorn Mountains made for a lot of very slow climbs.

On a more positive note, the exceedingly steep climbs and descents made it considerably easier for me to calculate the amount of time it would likely take me to get to the next aid station. I knew, based on the terrain I could currently see, that any given mile would take me either 20 minutes or 30 minutes to cover. If what I was looking at was flat or gently downhill at the moment I knew I was very near something unpleasant but I could take advantage of the current respite and probably accomplish a 20 minute mile while covering what I could see and the bit of unpleasantness that was invariably right around the next bend. Alternatively, if I was looking at some steep, rocky climb with water pouring down it and mud bogs flanking either side I knew that it would go on considerably longer than you would expect thus resulting in a 30 minute mile. This resulted in most aid stations being anywhere from an hour to two hours away. Leadville also has aid stations that take a good while to get to but that’s mostly because they are on average about 10 miles apart.

The final comparison between Leadville and Bighorn are aid stations. Leadville is a far larger race so that needs to be considered. The aid stations at Leadville more closely resemble mini-marts or sidewalk cafes than they do their distant cousin, the typical marathon aid station with cups of water and Gatorade. The one “limited” aid station at Leadville is packed up onto Hope Pass on the backs of llamas and even it contains soda and hot soup among other things though by comparison to the rest of the Leadville buffet it is limited.

Bighorn, on the other hand, has raised to limited aid station to a fine art form. Don’t get me wrong, Bighorn has a lot of good aid stations with attentive and dedicated volunteers. At least three of the aid stations required that aid be either brought in by horseback or backed packed in under human power while several others required lengthy and undoubtedly nerve-wracking drives using powerful ATVs. What impressed me most was their unmanned “aid stations” at Fence Spring, Creek Spring and Stock Tank.

I have been in three races with unmanned aid stations, the Black Warrior 50K in Moulton Alabama, the Turtle Marathon in Roswell New Mexico and the Rio Del Lago 100 in Granite Bay California. The unmanned aid station at Black Warrior was a collection of 5 gallon water coolers filled with water sitting in the middle of the woods near a stream, the ones at the Turtle Marathon were flats of bottled water sitting on the side of the road and the one at Rio Del Lago consisted of several boxes on one gallon water jugs sitting on a hydroelectric generator of some kind. When I saw there were three unmanned aid stations at Bighorn this is what I had in mind, no big deal.

I was incorrect. The unmanned aid stations at Bighorn are actually natural springs that have had pipes fitted to them. The first one at Fence Spring, however, was buried under a snow bank so the pipe couldn’t be set up for it. It was just a stream pouring down the side of the mountain out from under a snow drift and it was unmarked so it was indistinguishable from any other stream of water out on the course pouring down from somewhere higher. In fact, I didn’t even notice it on the way out because I had no idea that I should be looking for something like that as an aid station. In fairness to the race, they did specifically tell us about that aid station during the pre-race meeting, however, having absolutely no context for an aid station being an unmarked tube sticking out of the side of a mountain the warning about the tubeless Fence Spring just came across as a novel alert that much of the water you saw flowing down the streams in the Bighorns was both quite drinkable and tasty.

I never saw Creek Spring. I did come across a long garden hose coming out from under a snow drift and it was lying in a rush of snowmelt but this was no more than 30 yards from an actual aid station so I doubt that was it though I did suggest to the volunteers at the aid station that if someone would just go over there and shut off the hose the course might not be so muddy. The final unmanned aid station was Stock Tank. That one I both saw and used. It was described in the pre-race brief as an obvious wooden tank that was “almost completely disintegrated but the pipe is in and the water is flowing.” Stock Tank also had those little orange construction flags around it making the presence of human intention all the more obvious. The Stock Tank aid station does come after another plastic stock tank but that one is unmarked and is pretty close to the previous aid station, Cow Camp, so there was some room for confusion but not much, just enough that by the time you see Stock Tank you somewhat incredulously say to yourself, “Oh, THIS is a Bighorn unmanned aid station” and despite your disbelief you feel comfortably correct in your assumption.

Comparisons aside, the Bighorn course itself is not only difficult but it is beautiful. As you can tell I took a ton of pictures and have had a hard time deciding what to discard so I just posted most of them. Apparently this year the wildflowers weren’t as prevalent as they usually are but they were still there in abundance. There are several parts of the course where you are traversing wide open green spaces filled with blue, yellow, purple and white flowering wildflowers. I remember thinking “How very Sound of Music” during the initial big climb out of the Tounge River Valley where the race ascends into the Bighorn Mountains.

During the run from the start in Scott Park I was feeling good and snapping a lot of pictures. The climb is very gradual until you get to the Tounge River Trail Head aid station, listed as the TR TH aid station. From there the course turns sharply upward and I found myself getting stuck behind a few people that were climbing way too slow. In retrospect I’m still not sure if this means I was going out too fast. It didn’t feel like it and I was able to pass even at what felt like an easy pace so I think I was good. It was also during this segment that I missed the unmanned tube, or tubeless, hole in the ground that was the Fence Spring aid station, which resulted in a 7.4 mile uphill trek from the TR TH aid station to the Upper Sheep aid station rather than the 5 mile and 2.4 mile splits I was expecting. Fortunately I had two bottles and it was still relatively cool out so I didn’t run out of water.

The Upper Sheep aid station was at about mile 12.5 and already I had been skirting mud and water in the hopes of saving my feet as long as possible. While the mud and water didn’t slow me down as much as I had feared, it did slow me down because I wasn’t just running willy-nilly through every mud bog and stream crossing. I’m quite sure that would have done me in because there was just so much of it over the length of the course. I picked my way through and jumped streams and mud holes where I could but my feet and lower legs were damp and muddy from maybe mile five to mile 76 when I cleaned off my feet, put duct tape on them and changed into my last dry pair of shoes. The worst of the mud and water occurred between the Cow Camp aid station, about 30 miles into my race, and the Footbridge aid station. Apparently this is the way it always is regardless of what route is taken.

Apart from my adventures with mud I had the usual adventures with trying to keep myself going as did everyone else. The interesting thing for me during this race is that I never really had a low point. I had points when I was annoyed by the next steep climb or descent but beyond that I never hit a point where I was telling myself things like “I only have to make it through until morning.” I’m hoping that this is a new evolution in ultrarunning for me where the races aren’t as psychologically draining. The one point where I briefly considered dropping was mile 76 but at that point I still had eight hours to finish 24 miles. At that point I was weighed at 10 pounds over my pre-race weight and I had been going for 26 hours, my hands were swollen like balloons and the balls of my feet were feeling raw. I was a bit worried but the medical personnel deemed me ok to go. The final kick was sitting next to a women while I was taping my feet who was talking about dropping. She had a friend there who was trying to motivate her to keep going. She said that if she kept going “I might end up being DFL” and the guys trying to keep her going said “So” she said “Well, I don’t want to be a looser.” That did it for me. I have finished second to last in a hundred and as a triathlon referee I have seen many back of the packers and I have gained a great deal of respect for those whom persevere.

The aftermath of the race has been almost more intense than the race itself. It is a bit over a week post-race and my head is just starting to feel clear, my feet are still a little tender and it took about 6 days for the swelling in my legs to go down noticeably. I’m sure it didn’t help my recovery that I had to turn around the day after my return to Albuquerque and immediately fly out to San Diego for training in a new therapy intervention. It took about eight shots of espresso per day to keep me alert and focused during that training and I was still pretty “mellow.”

My next big race is Wasatch, which is supposed to be harder than Bighorn. I won’t lie, I’m a bit nervous about that but my confidence is very high. I have two months of unbroken time to train back up for Wasatch and hit a taper. I’m not going to push it because the chances are I already have the strength and fitness to finish I would just like to sharpen a bit and maybe do better than a finish.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Back in the Saddle Again: A Billy the Kid Tombstone Triathlon Race Report

, triathlonThe weekend of June 11th was the second running of the Billy the Kid Tombstone Triathlon. I was scheduled to run a 10K up in Colorado to try and hedge my bets in qualifying for the New Mexico Army National Guard running team to go run the Army 10-miler but I decided against it because I have the Bighorn 100 next weekend and I’m just too paranoid that trying to sprint a 10K downhill might get me injured so I took the prudent route. Besides I already submitted one qualifying time about a month ago that may put me on the team and there is still one more race left that provides me with a good chance at getting one more fast time.

In any case, rather than run the 10K the GeekGrl and I opted to run the BTK Sprint Tri out in Ft. Sumner, NM. One interesting thing about this race is about three years ago I was starting to look around the state for a good venue to start a triathlon of my own and I had settled on Ft. Sumner. I thought it would be a good choice because there is a lake, good roads and it lies between two major areas where triathletes from our region come from. The only problem was that I didn’t know anyone in Ft. Sumner nor had I ever even met someone from Ft. Sumner and it is usually a good idea to have someone locally who is supportive of hosting a race. As triathlon season wraped up I decided to shelf the idea for later and it was about then that someone from Ft. Sumner joined the team and she had already started a triathlon out at lake Sumner it’s just that it was so small nobody I knew had ever heard of it and it had only happened once.

Going into this race I hadn’t been swimming since August and that was in another sprint tri. I also haven’t been on a bike much at all. This year I have logged a total of 64 miles on the bike and that even includes the BTK tri. However, I know that my running can carry me through a sprint.

The water was about 72 degrees so I opted to wear my sleeveless wetsuit though I probably could have gone without it. When the starting gun fired I took off and was swimming very well. It happened that in my wave a high school swim team comprised about half the people and despite my good swim I was quickly left behind. Little did I know that I was actually leading the “regular” swimmers so all I could see were the swim team leaving me behind. I was worried about swimming straight but that didn’t become a problem. What did become a problem was shoulder fatigue. I was pretty surprised to find myself hoping for the end of a 400 meter swim well down from my Ironman swim fitness of being able to go 2.4 miles at a slightly faster pace than I was achieving at the moment.

I came out of the water and got through transition pretty quickly. The bike at BTK is an out and back on rolling country roads. It is also 16 miles long, which was a bit unusual for a sprint. However, it became apparently why it was 16 miles half way through the race. At the bike turn around there is a large tree, the only tree along the road, so it is easy to say, “Just ride out to the tree and turn around. The bike wasn’t hard but I still struggled with it. While my leg strength is fine my tolerance for riding hard and feeling that level of discomfort on the bike is pretty much gone but I was still able to knock out a 20+ mph average speed on the bike, which put me at about 7th fastest overall.

Getting off the bike I was able to get through transition pretty quickly again and I headed out for the run, which began with about ¾ of a mile uphill. The run felt pretty good but I was far enough out front that the few people ahead of me were too far ahead and there wasn’t many people close enough behind me to be passed assuming I could hold the pace to the finish line. The day was starting to heat up toward the end of the run and fellow Outlaw Carl Armstrong was starting to gain on me. Of course he had started in the wave behind me so by the time I saw him he was probably already ahead of me but I still wanted to cross the finish line first because I’m compulsively competitive that way.

I came across the finish line of my first triathlon since August 2010 feeling pretty good and of course, once again, I had a really good time. Triathlon is so much fun I just wish the training for it didn’t suck so much. For the life of me I don’t know how I trained up for seven Ironman races but it’s pretty difficult to imagine stomaching that much time on the bike and in the swim again. Maybe someday.

Next up is the Bighorn 100 mile trail run!

Did I just say it’s hardtop imagine swimming and biking enough to do another Ironman and then immediately follow it up with “next up is the Bighorn 100 mile trail run”? I can at least still appreciate the irony.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Once Again Into the Breach: A Jemez Mountain Trail 50K Race Report

This was my third year at the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs. My first year I ran the half-marathon and then the next day rode the Santa Fe Century. Back then I had done some ultras but I still really considered myself a triathlete. My next showing at Jemez was last year when I intended on running the 50K with the GeekGrl. She decided to drop at mile 6.5 and just finish her day with the half so I took off on my own and ran too hard to try and “catch up”, with what or who I don’t know. I had a good run for a while but ended up slogging through a hot wind in the exposed and rocky burn area. I was a pretty miserable for about the last 8 miles and ended up with a finish time of about 9:45.

This year I came to Jemez determined to have a good race, my own race, and see what I could do on what is widely considered to be the hardest 50K in the United States. I drove up to Los Alamos the morning of the race, which works out fine because I can start pushing food and fluids during the drive up. The GeekGrl was coming to get her revenge on the 50K and a brand new trail runner named Uneeka was also along to run her first mountain half-marathon. One thing worth mentioning about the Jemez runs is that, at least the 50K and the half-marathon are both long. The 50K is about 33 miles and the half is actually 14.

My good friend JT from Las Vegas, NV came out to challenge the 50K course as did several Outlaws including Jane, Mark, Ken, Margaret, and Nicki. I had only had two weeks rest since the completion of my four marathons in two weeks but I felt surprisingly good. At the start I rolled out easy and by the time the road gave way to single track I was at a place where I felt comfortable just running in line and I didn’t expend the least amount of energy trying to shoot past anyone. There were a couple spots before the climb up to Gage Ridge where we crossed a dirt road and I did take the opportunity to pass then but otherwise I just cruised along.

When we hit the first big climb up Gage I kicked in the climbing gear and started passing people right and left. I was very happy to see that, despite the fact I have been struggling with a hip injury ever since the Rocky Raccoon 100 and have been running a lot more flat than usual I still retained some good climbing ability. Once atop Gage I started the steep descent down to Caballo base. This was the first serious downhill running I have done in a few months, again, because of the injury, and I immediately noticed that I felt much less sure footed and less stable. Most of the actual single track at Jemez is very narrow, often rocky, often with a slope and sometimes with a crumbling edge that gives way to a steep drop off. These conditions make for tenuous footing even when I'm feeling trained up but in this case it was downright scary at times.

Last year when my mountain running skills were peaking I was screaming down these descents. This year, not so much. Once again I just fell in line and chugged on down the mountain putting way too much stress on my quads and grabbing trees so I could either swing myself around corners to make a turn or to stop myself from overshooting corners and ending up in the ravine below. The run to Caballo base was nice as always with lots of tree cover and a cool stream running alongside the trail. Once at Caballo base the major climb of the race began. I kicked in the climbing gear again and it responded nicely. As I chugged up the mountain I reflected on how much it sucked learning how to climb well in my training for Leadville. I was so slow and people who were smaller than I would just fly by. I learned to just be patient and keep moving and it would all be fine.

The trip back down Caballo was another story. I am used to being able to fly downhill but not this year, not with the lack of mountain running. So, once again, I chugged down the mountain and once again I was just hammering my quads by breaking too much with every step. By the time I got to the bottom of Caballo my shoes were full of dirt and rocks so I spent a goodly amount of time emptying them and wiping off my socks. I also fueled up and then headed back out on the trail.

After departing Caballo base heading toward Pipeline I came across a youg guy who was looking pretty good but every once in a while he would suddenly drop to the side of the trail and say something like “I’m exhausted” or “Holy cow this is hard.” I didn’t give it a lot of thought until we somehow ended up in a conversation when he told me “I thought this was a marathon, I didn’t know there were mountains. This is my first marathon.” All I could think was “What the hell?! Have you ever heard of the internet?” I generously though he must be from some distant place where they have no knowledge of New Mexico and think it’s just a big, flat desert but no, it turns out that he was from a small town not 30 miles away.

I asked Marathon Guy if he had been eating and drinking. He told me he had eaten one Powerbar. I looked at my watch and we were 3 hours and 17 minutes into the race. I stifled the impulse to say, “Dude, you are screwed. You should have eaten like three of those by now.” Instead I just said, “Ok, when you get to the next aid station (which I knew was at least a hard 3 miles away) you need to get a lot of food and water in you even if it becomes a bit uncomfortable. You need to get some salt too. You should leave the aid station feeling kind of full but you can just walk briskly until that feeling goes away and then you can start running again. By the time you get to the next aid station after that you should be ok and can just eat and drink normally.” I then left him to his own devices and wished him well. In the end he actually did pretty well finishing maybe a half hour behind me.

After leaving Marathon Guy behind I continued the long climb up to Pipeline. Most people are unprepared for this climb because they are so focused on Caballo and when you look at an elevation profile it doesn't really stand out because your eyes are drawn to Gauge and Caballo. However, if you focus on the elevation changes listed in the course description you will see that the climb to Pipeline is not insubstantial and it can really suck once you have spent you climbing legs. As I was heading up this climb there was a small train of us moving about the same pace though I did pass a few people. One guy stopped and leaned against a large boulder and said, "I'm just going to hold this boulder here for a bit so it doesn't roll down on people." It was a pretty funny excuse for a rest.

For some reason I have never liked the entire section between Pipeline out to the turnaround at the Ski Lodge and then back to Pipeline. It's not that it is bad running, it is actually some of the best footing and most runnable area of the entire course, it's just, I think, that it occurs during the middle low points of my race. This is a section that you run not only in the Jemez 50K and 50 mile but you also run it during the 15-miler at the Pajarito Trail fest. I like both of these races but this one section takes place when I am at a low point and so I think I have permanently associated the section with "bleh." I mostly focused on just putting this section behind me but it was during my return from the Ski Lodge to Pipeline when the eventual 50-mile winner, Nick Clark, passed me.

Being passed by Nick was a pretty impressive sight. It's not because Nick is an imposing figure, it's because he was obviously struggling as his pacer verbally flogged him onward and he was able to respond. When he passed me he was at about mile 41 after having completed all the major climbs of the course. He was running uphill and his pacer was ahead of him saying, "Come on, were running slow 8s, let's go!" and there was Nick with sweat drenched hair and his beard to his chest just powering along.

After inbound Pipeline there were a couple of short but very steep climbs that I had forgotten about and that were definitely unwelcome. It was here that I got passed by who I suspect were two of the top women's 50K finishers. They were both exceedingly small and moving up the steep hill quite briskly. Though they were only walking I would not have been able to match their pace had I been running. I finished off the two climbs and then began a long, gradual descent back to the Gauge Ridge aid station. This section of the course is very runable trail and is mostly in dappled sunlight so the growing heat wasn't too bad. Unlike last year when I was already pretty much finished by this time I was still running comfortably if not speedily.
Back at Gauge Ridge aid station I grabbed a quick bite to eat and refilled my water bottles in preparation for the part of the course that makes me question why I do this race. The burn area is rocky, dusty, completely exposed and hot, always hot. The other problem with it is that it is long, one of the longest stretches between aid stations in the race. I'm sure the section is only made longer by my constant complaining about how hot and dusty it is and the continuous question, "Why am I doing this race again!" but this year I fared much better than in previous years and only got passed once and was never reduced to a true slog.

Once off the ridge and back into the canyon I actually passed a couple people that had obviously been scorched by the burn area and while I felt for them I was very glad not to actually be one of them. The final aid station of the race was called Last Chance this year, last year it was called Pinky's. From the last aid station to the finish line it is only about 2.5 miles but about ¾ of a mile of it is a pretty good uphill climb so I took some extra time at the aid station refueling, filling a water bottle with ice cold water and drinking some soda. I know that a little extra time here makes the journey to the finish line far more pleasant.

I was able to pass about three more people between the last aid station and the finish and was closing in on a fourth person but he looked back and saw me and still had enough of a gap on me to finish first. I finished my own race in 7:35:42, which is a pretty good time for Jemez. To provide some perspective on just how hard Jemez is, this year I set a new 50K PR at Mt. Si with a time of 4:18:47 and that course had just over 1000 feet of climbing. I think the Jemez 50K has something like 8,000 feet of climbing and considerably harder trails.

Will I do this race again next year? Who knows, probably but I really don't want to. Don't get me wrong, it's a great race but it's one of those deals where it is practically in my backyard and I run very similar terrain throughout my training season. I like to travel around and mix it up. However, it's convenient and perfectly positioned as a final hard training run for some of the mountain 100s that I have my eye on. This year that 100 is Bighorn where we will be running on an alternate snow route and will get to experience snow, mud, flooding and possible thunder showers….yea!