Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Run Woodstock -- Hallucination 100-Mile

"If you start to feel good during an ultra,

                        don't worry, you'll get over it."

                                                          --Gene Thibeault


After completing the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs 50-miler last summer and then running across the Grand Canyon in October, I had decided that it was time to make the leap and tackle a 100-mile run.  The sport of ultra-running is growing rapidly and there's a plethora of races to choose from.  You can run mountains, you can run deserts, you can run trails, you can run roads, you can run loops, you can run point-to-point, etc.  In December, Angie and I started looking for a fun race, in an interesting location, and perhaps something easier than climbing Mt. Everest for my first 100-miler.  It's not quite as simple as signing up for your local 5K fun run.  Most of these races aren't near me.  Most of them would require travel, child care, special gear, etc.

I made a list of what I wanted:
  1. A Western States qualifier.  If I finish this 100-mile adventure, I want to throw my hat in for the most famous race of the ultra-running community.
  2. I wanted my friend and fellow ultra-runner, Mark, to be my pacer.  I know he's willing to travel, but I wanted to limit his expenses.
  3. I wanted something relatively flat.  I say relatively, because let's all be honest...100 miles of hills or 100 miles of still........100 MILES.
  4. I wanted a cool belt buckle, finisher's medal and swag.  Seriously.....we all run races for vanity reasons.  Why can't an ultra be done for the same reason?
  5. A race with easy access for my wife/crew to get me what I needed throughout the race.
  6. I wanted a race known for it's planning and community.
It didn't take long for the Run Woodstock weekend to emerge from the above list.  Run Woodstock is a 3-day weekend of live music, running, and freeing your 'sole' via activities like yoga, hula hooping, hikes, tie dye, etc. in central Michigan.  Run Woodstock offers a 5K, 10K, Half marathon, Marathon, 50K, 100K and 100M races throughout the weekend, highlighted by the Hallucination 100.  Several hundred dollars later, Angie and I had a race registration and a campsite.

I still have never been one for following training plans.  I just really like to run.  But, for last year's 50-miler, I followed Hal Koerner's plan and when I got to the start line, I was well prepared.  When I finished, I wasn't a broken man.  I knew 100 miles would take more and I immediately went back to my Hal Koerner book and printed off the 100-mile training plan:

Hal Koerner's 100-mile training plan
It was January and I had 4 months before I needed to start the 100-mile training plan.  But, the first week of the training plan was 56 miles!  As my running friend, Don, joked, "You need a training plan to get ready for your training plan."  Don was right.  I had to put plenty of miles in during the winter so that I'd come out in the spring roaring to go.  In addition to the running plan, I still participated in high-intensity interval training (HIIT) at the gym three times a week for an hour.  I decided those HIIT classes would be awesome for me because I could wear myself down for an hour and then go outside and run tired.....something that would have to be overcome on race day.


I'd be lying if I said I followed Hal's plan to a 'T'.  Life gets in the way.  Family always comes first.  The important point of the plan is to get in the weekend back-to-back long runs.  I would say I got 90% of those runs in.  I never let the weather stop me from getting my runs in.

I would say that training went exceptional for me:
  1. Week #5 -- Instead of the weekend 15/15, I raced a 50K relay by myself (10 loops, 5K/loop).  I placed 2nd to a very well-known ultra-runner, beat all the relay teams, and had my personal best time (4:49:45).
  2. Week #13 -- Instead of a 30-mile run, I ran 15miles on sand roads in the sandhills of Nebraska followed by racing a 5K (placed 4th).
  3. Week #16 -- I flew up to Michigan to meet Mark and we ran 100 miles over the course of 3-4 days on the bluffs along Lake Michigan.
Late July and August brought along the all too familiar Midwestern humidity.  Of all the forces of nature to contend with when running, humidity is the bane of my existence.  Several of my runs I struggled thru.  Cramps came at unexpected times.  Running was miserable.  But, each spell of humidity would be broken by one or two days of nice weather and when I'd go run on those mornings, I was just flying.  It told me to keep pushing thru the humidity and I'd come out a better, stronger, faster man for it.

Titan 50K Relay finished in 4:49:45 PR.

One weekend, my pacer, Jody and I ran what was supposed to be a 17-mile run on an early Saturday morning.  We started out well enough, but the sun came up and we both were sweating and dying.  I told Jody if we made it to mile 7, we could turn around and get 14 miles and feel good about the day.  Well, when we got there, I forced Jody to go 1.5 miles further before turning around.  We got our 17 miles that day.  We walked and we struggled, but we did it.  I didn't know if Jody hated me for it, but I felt like we conquered something that Saturday morning.


The summer flew by and we found ourselves driving 12 hours to Hell Creek Campground in Hell, Michigan before we knew it.  When I say 'we', I mean my wife, youngest daughter, and I.  But, I also mean Jody & his wife Linda.  It was a total surprise but early in the summer, they told us they would join us for Run Woodstock.  This meant we had familiar faces joining us for a road trip and that I would have a pacer!  I'll have more to say on Jody & Linda later.

We arrived to the start of a pretty dreary weekend.  The forecast shifted by the hour, but one thing seemed the original Woodstock......we were going to get rained on.  We quickly put up our tent in a prime location and moved our gear out of the rain.

Over the course of the next day, we would see floods of runners with tents & campers fill Hell Creek Ranch Campground.  The vibe continued to grow.  Tie dye everywhere!  Music at all hours!  Smiles on everyone's faces.  The energy from the running community was astounding.  Random people would just introduce themselves.  We would talk incessantly about our past ultra experiences -- good and bad.
Can't wait to cross this line....
Jimmy from the Mad Dog Run Club

Woodstock without a VW Bus?  I think not.


Most ultras start at incredibly early hours (usually pre-6AM).  Hallucination 100 was different.  Race start time was 4PM.  We would run 6 loops of 16.7 miles per loop.  We signed our final waiver at noon.  Anxiety caused me to get dressed by 2PM and then just sit and wait.

Mark is always smiling!
Occupying Brooklyn

Mandatory pre-race briefing at 3PM was short and sweet.  Finally, at 3:50, Lemon James performed a rendition of Jimi Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner and it was awesome.  Twelve weeks of pre-training, twenty weeks of training, countless hours of planning and packing and we were finally here....the START LINE.

Mark and I are off!
Myself, Mark and Nazar

We settled in nicely as the race started and we just talked.  It was warm and humid, but nothing oppressive.  Our pace was gentle but efficient.  The course was soft dirt and sand under the cover of the trees.  Approximately five miles of each loop would be on crushed limestone trails and/or gravel roads.  We marched our way to Grace (Aid Station #1, 4 mile point of each loop).  I had been warned by my wife/crew chief that I needed to stay up on my hydration and caloric intake.  I wanted to drink my 22oz bottle of water/electrolyte mix down every 4 miles (each aid station).  At Grace, I grabbed a water refill, a PB&J sandwich and a slice of watermelon.  Like someone pointed out later...."Russell...always eating..":

Grace Aid station, Loop 1

Mark had to use the restroom and we both had the understanding that this race was for ourselves.  We weren't going to run together unless by happenstance.  I was ready and I left Grace.  I would not see Mark again for 12+ hours.  After Grace, we hit the gravel road for about 2 miles and I was determined to keep my pace on the flat roads and limestone trails at a good clip to offset the bad miles.  We turned from the road onto single-track trails once again and headed into the forest to find our farthest aid station, Rickie.

Two miles later, we reached Rickie.  Another PB&J, another slice of watermelon and another water refill and I was out.  I was determined to not waste any time at aid stations.  The next stop would be a loop back to Grace....another 4 miles.  Again, it was about 2 miles of trail and 2miles of road.  There was nothing unusual about it or even particularly hard.  I plugged away and put the miles behind me.

A 2nd stop at Grace with yet another PB&J, another slice of watermelon and another water refill and off I went.  I had never seen this course before, so I wasn't sure what to expect.  To this point (12miles) it was easy and flat...maybe even downhill?  That question was quickly answered.  The next 4 miles would be climbing back to the start finish.  I remember my watch beeping to let me know we'd clicked another mile off and I looked down to see that it was mile #13.  I thought to myself, "Huh, we just ran a half marathon.  I'm not even remotely close to tired."  I think that was the first time it hit me that I could do this.  If 13 miles was so incredibly easy.....then 100 should be obtainable, right?

I had two goals for this race:
  1. Finish under 24 hours.  This is somewhat a benchmark for 100 miles ultras.  According to the year prior's results, this would land me in the top 25%.  Ambitious goal?  Sure.  Doable?  Absolutely.
  2. Finish the damn thing.
People asked me why I ordered my goals like that....should "finish" be first?  If you stop and think about it, going under 24 hours would mean finishing, no?  Killing two birds with one stone.  So, quick math.......finish under 24 hours........six loops.......four hours per loop.

I climbed the rolling hills up and out of the forest to the sounds of hippie music and people cheering.  I picked up the pace just slightly and cruised thru loop #1 at 3:15.  This was slightly shocking because I thought it might have been too fast, but I felt AMAZING.  And, it banked me 45 minutes on my goal time.

Loop #1 done!
The aid station at the start/finish was fully stocked and guess what I went for?  Yeah, you guessed it...water refill, slice of watermelon, and PB&J.  Earlier in the week, I had been given some advice that I'd heard before, from my friend, Andy, about drinking pickle juice to stave off cramps.  If you know anything about my prior ultras, I tend to get cramps very, very easily...especially in heat.  I also added four pickles and the juice to my appetite at this aid station.

I visited my crew at our tent.  Loop #2 would start in the sunlight but quickly give way to the darkness for the following 12 hours.  I refilled my electrolyte mix, replenished my pack with granola bars, and grabbed my headlamps.  I hurriedly left the start/finish feeling great about my first 17 miles.

I made the return to Grace without using my headlamp.  Another PB&J, watermelon slice, and water refill and I headed down the gravel road.  This was the first place I put my headlamp on.  I had it charged full and I set it on it's very lowest setting so as to conserve battery.

I made the 4-mile trek to Rickie with no problems but darkness had finally fallen in its entirety.  There was a quarter moon, so we weren't going to get any light from it and besides, it was buried beneath the clouds.  PB&J, watermelon & water and I was out of Rickie.

After leaving Rickie, it became obvious just how dark it was.  IT. WAS. DARK.  My headlamp provided just enough light to see my next footfall.  This was somewhat a blessing because 100% of my attention was on the trail in front of me and not on any aches or pains that might be arising.  It was constant focus.  A quick stop at Grace, the same refills of food/water, and off I headed to climb back to the start/finish.

The loop flew by and I crossed the start/finish at 7 hours even for my 34-mile split.  This was wonderful news!  I had banked an hour now on my goal time and I was still fresh.  I grabbed the usual PB&J, watermelon, pickles and water refill and visited my crew.

I changed shorts after loop #2 because I'm a sweaty bastard and it had to be done.  We refilled my snacks and electrolytes.  I was feeling wonderful and expressing that to my crew.  I had told them that I could do 50 miles on my own and I wouldn't need Jody's pacing assistance until Loop #4 and possibly #6.

Refilling electrolytes in the dark
 It was now 11PM and my crew informed me that sometime around 1AM we were about to experience the storms.  I left the start/finish area and started into loop #3.

I reached Grace and followed my refill routine.  I stepped away from Grace and onto the gravel road and the first sprinkle of rain appeared in my headlamp.  Frogs jumped across the road and trail so frequently that by the end of the race, the amount of roadkill/carnage from runners meeting frogs was astounding.  By the time I reached the trail, just 2 miles later, the downpour began.  It poured.  And it poured.  And it poured.  It was still warm out, so the rain was a relief to the senses. Except that now, it was even harder to see with my headlamp on low.

The rest of loop #3 was fairly uneventful.  The rain didn't stop.  It didn't even lighten up.  I cruised thru the start/finish at 11hours for 51 miles.  This is a PR for me!  I know I can go faster for 50 miles, but sometimes the course or the goal at hand dictates your time/pace.

Loop #4 is where Jody would join me.  Jody had never paced an ultra before, but I was sure of his ability to navigate 17 miles of trail.  His company was what I wanted more than anything.  By this point of the race, people were dropping due to the rain and we were getting spread apart from each other.  It was a lot of lonely miles.  I had prepared Jody for this with a set of guidelines for pacing with me, so we were both on the same page.  Feel free to read them at your leisure, but the important part is Jody was instructed to keep me moving and not let me give up:

Pacing...more than you think

Jody and I ... ready for loop #4
Jody and I left the start/finish area and began loop #4.  This was uncharted territory for me, but I was in a zone.  We splished and splashed our way thru the mud puddles and back to Grace.  I distinctly remember the couple miles prior to Grace because it was the crushed limestone trail and our pace was right about 9:50/mile.  Yeah, that's not fast...but that's 53 miles into a race.  I remember hearing Jody huffing a bit.  He didn't say it aloud, but I think his mind said "How the hell is this kid still running this fast and how am I going to keep up?"  Jody changed at that point, and he might not admit it, but he bucked up and pushed me from then forward.  His constant and relentless pushing was exactly what I needed to keep going.

This is where I need to break and thank Jody & Linda.  Jody trudged thru 17 awful miles of rain, mud, downpour, bugs, etc with me and didn't complain one bit.  We tripped, I swore.  We both got drenched in the middle of a forest half a day from home where the only respite would be a wet tent.  I knew Jody could go two laps with me that night and I was looking forward to taking him out for loop #6 with me.  I cannot ever repay his effort.  I'm so proud of Jody.  And Linda, she didn't even get to run.  Instead, she got to stay up all night awaiting the return of some idiot who thought it'd be a good idea to try to run 100 miles thru the pouring rain in the middle of a forest just so she could watch him change socks, stink up the joint and leave again.  Angie could not have done the crewing job she did without Linda's help.  From little things like refilling food, to bigger things like words of encouragement, it was great to have her along.  The running community is amazing because of people like Jody & Linda.  My unwavering appreciation for their efforts will last an eternity.

Jody and I finished loop #4 almost right at 15 hours for 68 miles.  I had a goal of getting thru 4 loops during the darkness and we had accomplished that.  Unfortunately, the final couple miles of loop #4 is when I think things began to unravel.  The chaffing on my inner thighs was painful.  I had tripped 3-4 times during the night.  I didn't fall, but each trip brought me to a walk cursing my feet and shaking off some pain of stubbing something.

At the start/finish, we took extra time on this stop.  I was still a full hour ahead of my goal pace and there were problems to be taken care of.  I changed shorts and shirt.....AGAIN.  Not that it did much good because the rain was still pouring down upon us.  We applied more bodyglide and Vaseline to the chaffed areas.  My main concern was my feet.  They were so water logged that they were white, wrinkly and felt like they were about to split.  Angie took the lead and removed my shoes & socks.  She dried my feet with a towel.  She re-socked me.  I knew it would get tougher from here and we put extra soups and pickles in me.  Amazingly, my legs still felt very fresh.  I was tired, but I certainly wasn't exhausted.  The Navy seals have a rule of 40%.  When you think you are done, and totally exhausted, your body is actually only 40% done.  This is what I kept remembering.  I still had plenty in the tank.....even though my looks might speak differently:

I headed out onto loop #5 by myself.  With hindsight, this was probably not a good idea.  A 2nd pacer would have gone a long ways.  I got onto the trail and had to pee.

So, this is a story I wasn't sure I'd tell too many people, but when I do, they think it's funny, so I'm sharing it here.  It's NSFW (Not Safe For Work) and probably not safe for children.


So, one of my problems in ultras is my penis rubs on the insides of my shorts.  It doesn't chafe, but after hours of rubbing it feels like I have to pee.  ALL. THE. TIME.  After one race, I sat on the toilet for two hours but produced nothing because it FELT like I had to pee, but nothing comes of it.  This time around, we looked up some answer to this problem on ultra-running websites and several people mentioned just putting a piece of medical tape over the tip.  So, at the beginning of loop #4, with Linda looking away, I put a piece of athletic tape over the tip.  Yeah, you might have caught the problem already....athletic tape != medical tape.  So, 1/4-mile into loop #5, I stop to pee.  I attempt to pull back the athletic tape and it's stuck.  I mean....STUCK.  I pull it halfway, just enough to pee, and I'm crying in pain.  I pee.  But, I'm sure as hell not putting this back on!  But, it has to come off!  So, I begin to peel.  OH. EM. GEE.  Does that hurt.  I stop.  There I am, in the pouring rain, alongside a trail in the middle of nowhere, yanking athletic tape off my penis and crying while other runners pass me by.  It was not a proud moment to say the very least.  I decide to man up and just jerk it off.  1...2...3...JERK!  It comes about halfway off.  OUUUUUCCHH!!!!  From there, I slowly peel it off, cursing everything under the sun.  Some lessons are learned the hard way, and this one was learned the very, very hard way.  I will find an answer to this very unique problem of mine, but until then, I definitely will NOT be using athletic tape anywhere near my man parts.


So, with my bathroom break aside, I begin to run and realize I just can't.  My right ankle is in pain and the chaffing is incredible.  I have no hair left on the insides of my legs and it's red...very red.  I grab my cell phone from my bag and call Angie.  I'm crying.  I tell her I'm done.  She tells me to get to Grace and Jody will meet me with more Vaseline and/or baby diaper cream.

I walk the next 2.5miles into Grace.  I plop onto the chair and I'm crying with my head buried.  I had trained so hard.  My legs still felt great!  But, my ankle....oh, my ankle.  And that goddamn chaffing.  Jody arrived and I told him that I was done.  He handed me the cream, got me to eat a few things, and told me I wasn't stopping.  I left Grace and walked about 40ft before I sat down on the side of the road and the tears really, really began to flow.  I told Jody I was done....repeatedly.  Jody did exactly as I had asked and told me that no I wasn't and I wasn't allowed to stop.  We sat for probably 20-30minutes.  Finally, I wasn't getting anywhere with quitting, so I started to trudge.  Jody walked alongside me.  I only remember looking down and seeing his sandals.  He was going to walk with me in sandals if he had to.  I finally found the strength to say "meet me at Rickie".

Jody went back to his car and I trudged/walked the next four miles to Rickie.  I tried to run a bit during those miles, I really did.  And, my pace was good...11-12 min/mile.  But, dammit if my ankle didn't have a striking pain with every single step and draw me right back to a walk.  My walk pace slowed terribly to nearly 20-25min/mile.

I walked into Rickie and immediately asked for the lady in charge.  I quit.


Twenty-three miles short of my goal, I quit.  Seventy-seven miles ... three MARATHONS..... and twenty hours into the biggest athletic event of my life, I quit.

To her credit, she asked if I was sure, and the last four miles had solidified my answer.  I quit.  She recorded my dreaded 'DNF' (Did Not Finish) and I walked out of the aid station back to the road where Jody would meet me and take me back to the start/finish.

I'd like to sound tough because I don't know when the ankle rolled, but Jody thinks (and I agree) it was probably one of those trip-ups around mile 65 that did it and I managed another half marathon on a bum ankle, but the fact is...I quit.  Maybe it was the episode with the tape and private parts that finally broke the emotional barrier of pain I'd been holding back?

I was bummed because my legs were still fine.  Seventy-seven miles into my day and my legs were still FINE.  I have so much faith in my training now because I could have gone another 77 miles on those legs that day....but not on that grapefruit sized ankle.


I didn't complete what I started, but I do have a few positive takeaways:
  1. My 50-mile PR.
  2. My 100K PR.
  3. A strengthened friendship with Jody & Linda.
  4. A new appreciation for the lengths to which my wife will go for me and my dreams.
  5. I'm in the very best shape of my life at age 37, and there's something to be said for that in today's day and age.
  6. I have friends in Michigan and across the country who will go the distance with me if I just ask.

I did get to see my friend, Mark, complete his first 100-mile run in 24:15:00.  I could not be more proud.  I am in awe of Mark and his accomplishments.  There's a reason everyone loves Mark and you know it from the moment you first talk to him.

Marks 100-Mile FINISH
The Hobby Joggas running club in Muskegon, Michigan is a GREAT group of people!  Jason amazingly crewed Mark thru the entire race.  If you have any question about the efforts involved in crewing, here is Jason post-race: (he didn't even get plugged in before falling asleep)


Even on the long drive back home, Angie and I were already talking about when I can do my next 100-mile attempt.  I love this sport because the chance for failure is so high, but the rewards of finishing are so much higher.  As I finish this race report up nearly 4 days later, I know I made the right decision in quitting to avoid further injury, but that doesn't mean it still doesn't hurt.  I can patch pride up, though.  I came away knowing that my legs can handle the 100-mile distance.  This is not the end.....not by a LONG shot.  This is just another stepping stone, life lesson and adventure.  And, one helluva good time!

My crew

Two mottos come to mind from Hallucination 100:

"Someone once told me not to bite off more than I could chew.  I said I'd rather choke on greatness than nibble on mediocrity."

"Life isn't defined by how many times you get knocked down.  It's defined by how many times you get back up."

I'm getting back up....starting right now today .....right after one last Candy Corn Oreo .....

--Camelbak Mini-MULE 1.5L Hydration pack(this is actually a kids hydration pack, but I can stuff so much into it!)
--Altra Lone Peak 3.0 shoes
--Garmin Fenix 3 watch
--Shaklee Performance Hydration drink/mix provided by Carol Adams
--Outdoor Research Sun Runner cap
--Sony HDRAS20/B action camera
--Copious amounts of Bodyglide
--Ridiculous number of PB&Js

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The coming STORM...

Clouds building...

It might be a cliche, but ever since I read "Born to Run", sometime around 2010, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.  I wanted to learn to run far.  Not just your normal 'bucket list' running like half-marathons and marathons.  I wanted to do something way outside my comfort zone.  I've heard it said before, "You will never know your limits until you attempt the impossible."

I knew the challenges ahead.  I knew the miles would have to be put in.  I knew I would have to learn more about my own body than ever before.  I knew I would burn through pairs of shoes faster than sticks of deodorant.  I knew I would have to sacrifice time with my family.  I knew--atleast a few--of the pains I would have to go thru.  I would have to relentlessly bug my ultrarunning friends for advice.

Storm approaching...

I sit here a week out from the biggest race of my life.  The proverbial "hay is in the barn" runs thru my head.  There is nothing more that I can do.  I've logged all the miles.  I've pounded pavement.  I've circled the trails.  I've ran in the heat, the cold, the rain, the humidity, the day, the night.  I've done my best to dial in my hydration and nutrition.  I have a week to just make sure I don't hurt myself.

And while I'm doing my best to pump myself up, to find the mental fortitude, to remind myself that I can do this....I am scared.  There, I said it.  I'm scared I missed a long run.  I'm scared I missed a short run.  I'm scared I haven't thought of something.  I'm scared I don't have the right gear.  What if my legs cramp?  What if I get heat exhaustion?  Did I charge my headlamp?  Did I do enough cross-training?  Have a run fast enough?  Did I run SLOW enough?  I'm scared that I will fail.

I'm.  Just.  Scared.

But .... this is why I signed up for this sport.  The possibility of failure is very real and very high.  My body will be bruised, battered, strained, depleted, sore, dehydrated, calorie-deficient, and broken.  My mind will play games with me.  I will find something out about myself that I never knew before....and I may not like it.

This is just a short post, but I wanted to let you all in on what's going thru my mind with a week to go.  On the outside, you might see the normal Russell, but now you have a peek into my mind.  It asks these questions all day long.  It's hard to focus on work, on family, etc.  I just want race day to be here...NOW.

In the end, I have to find the determination to stand up, in the face of any and all adversity, and say, "I AM THE STORM."

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Grand Canyon -- R2R

"The Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world......You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it." --Theodore Roosevelt

I think it was mentioned in the summer of 2014 by my running friend, Don, that he would someday like to traverse the Grand Canyon by foot (running, if possible).  It's a route that should be on every runner's 'bucket list'.  Well, it doesn't take much to get me riled up about adventures, and several weeks later, we had our hotel reserved on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for a mid-October 2015 adventure.

First off, running from South Rim to North Rim, a distance of approximately 21-miles, just wasn't enough.  Don and I both wanted to cross and return in the same day.  But, again, that would've only been 42-miles and that wasn't enough.  So, with some planning and side trips, we decided to stretch the round trip to 50-miles.  In a single day.  Up and down the GRAND CANYON.  This famous double-crossing is called the Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim, or R3 for short.

This trip was planned for October 12th.....Columbus Day.  While I no longer agree with the principles of Columbus and the celebration for his 'achievements', I will leave politics for another day.  To me, the point of Columbus Day is to celebrate those who explore the world by challenging their comfort zones.  From the moment you step foot up to the edge of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, your comfort level is challenged.  You can't take pictures that do the canyon any justice.  "Grand" just doesn't seem like a big enough word for it, because as you stand there, you are speechless.

Our comfort zones would be challenged on this trip to varying degrees.  I am no fan of heights, and there are several places in the canyon where the trail is on the edge of a cliff.  The sheer distance alone is daunting without thinking about descending 5,000' and ascending 5,000'.  Food and water were not provided like aid stations on race day...this was a solo effort.  There are poisonous snakes along the trail.  People do die each year, just trying to hike, let alone run, the canyon.

"DO NOT attempt to hike from the canyon rim to the river and back in one day.  Each year hikers suffer serious illness or death from exhaustion."

None of that really mattered, though....we are runners.  I don't know many types of athletes more resilient (or stupid?) than runners.  The old 'Pain is temporary, pride is forever' motto.

So, the morning of the 12th, at 5AM, we took off from Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim for a long day of adventure.  We walked the first 5-miles along the top of the rim as a group because only 3 of us were going to try to run it.  Our 5 mile walk brought us to the South Kaibab Trailhead at 6:15AM...just in time for sunrise.

L->R, Myself, Carlos, Don, Linda, and Jody

We took our obligatory pictures and parted ways.  Immediately, the trails begin what seems like miles of switchbacks plunging around corners and into depths you can't see from the top rim.

This, to me, is a runner's paradise.  Plunging down a mountainside, bouncing off rocks, churning your feet faster and faster while surveying the ground ahead of you for the next toe placement.....this is living.  If it wasn't for the massive piles of green manure from the mules (along with their smell) it would've been perfect.  We weren't the first ones to delve into the canyon that morning, so our initial ascent also included avoiding hikers.  As a side note, I will say that we as a group said "Excuse us", "Mind if we go around?", and "Have a great day, thank you!" to every, single passing group all day long.  The stories of runners being rude on the trails never left my mind and I made sure it wasn't us that put that mark on the running community.  And, it paid off........the politeness we received in return was wonderful.

Bright Angel Trail switchbacks, for reference.

Our day really didn't begin until we started that plunge into the canyon.  I didn't want our group to get separated at any point during the day, but this descent I was like a chained dog just let off its leash.  I had to open it up and run, but that left several stops waiting for my running partners.  Well, about 2-miles into the descent, I stopped and waited for Carlos & Don.  Suddenly, they both came around the corner where I could immediately see the red on Don's right knee.  As they catch up, Don explains to me that he took a 'tumble', hit his knee & head but he was OK.  As we start back to running, Don illuminates Carlos and I with a bit of knowledge and he says:
"For three reasons, I'm not supposed to be a trail runner.  One...I get lost easily.  Two...I don't drink beer.  And, three....I'm clumsy."
We all get a good laugh and carry on.  The trail continues to plummet (you have to drop nearly 4,500' to get to the Colorado River over the course of about 7-miles).  I continue to fly down the trail and pounce from rock to rock with what has to be the widest grin on my face.  About a mile later, I realize we are a bit separated again, and I stop to wait.  And I wait.  And I wait.  And I wait.  Again, Don and Carlos emerge and explain to me that Don had fallen again.  I feel it's worth noting that Don's right knee was not 100% as we arrived at the Canyon, so 7-8 miles into the day he'd already beaten it up quite a bit.  I hope Don doesn't mind me using this picture......but there's still a SMILE on his face!!

Don's "battle scars" (Tonto East)

Amazingly, after two crashes and some blood, Don was still smiling and running.  It should be noted that the pair of our group doing the hiking (Jody & Linda) would occasionally ask if anyone had seen a group of runners and we got some great reviews like "Yeah, you should see them flying down the trail!".  It was really good to hear things like this when we finished.....we came here to run the Grand Canyon--in full or in part--and we had at the very least accomplished that feat.

It wasn't much later that we met our first (and only) mule train of the day and we had to take a break to let them pass.  Within minutes, we reached the 'Black Bridge' crossing the Colorado River.

Black Bridge

We had reached the Colorado River, a distance of approximately 13-miles from our starting point, in about 3.5hrs (We walked the first 5-miles/1hr 15min).

From here, we refilled and refreshed at the bathrooms and water from the Phantom Ranch.  We also purchased souvenirs and t-shirts that you only get at the Phantom Ranch.  We met a ton of other hikers whom had spent the night at Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch.  Everyone was so pleasant and just excited to be in the Grand Canyon.

Bright Angel Canyon....our 14-mile climb back out.

"Going in is optional, coming out is MANDATORY."

From Phantom Ranch, you climb 14-miles up Bright Angel Canyon following Bright Angel Creek to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  The first 7-miles is a relatively small incline and quite runnable up to Cottonwood Campground.  Unfortunately, our running for the day was all but over with.  Don's knee was causing enough pain to keep him from running and he broke out the hiking poles as we left Phantom Ranch.

I think this was the spot for me where it sank in just how big our endeavor was.  You are 5,000' below the rim of an enormous canyon.  The only exit is a 14-mile, UPHILL hike.  The years of nature that it took to create this giant hole in the ground humbles you and your measly hundred years of existence.  This canyon was here an eon before you and it'll be here an eon after you.

We made our way to Cottonwood Campground at a fairly good hiking pace.  The views are stunning and you just can't take pictures.....but I still tried.  You cell phone doesn't work.  The GPS kept losing satellite signal.  They aren't kidding when they tell you the only way out is by your own man-power.

From Cottonwood, it's supposed to be about 7 more miles to the North Rim.  That was quite possibly the longest seven miles of my life.  Almost immediately after leaving Cottonwood, the stairs start.  Oh, the stairs.  Stairs.  Stairs.  Stairs.  Someone really needs to highlight the STAIRS for future trekkers/runners.  We knew there'd be an incline getting out of the canyon, we just didn't expect it to be SO MANY stairs.

When the stairs started, the cramps in my legs came alongside them.  I don't know what it is, but cramps are the bane of my running.  I wasn't out of energy--not even close.  I wasn't injured.  However, every step up triggered a quick pause to make sure the 'rolling-on-the-ground-screaming-obscenities' cramps didn't trigger.  I'm sure it has something to do with nutrition/water, but I just haven't figured it out yet.  To my credit though, they are getting more tolerable (if tolerating cramping in your legs for 4-6hrs is 'tolerable').

It was here that Carlos took over the lead for us and kept us moving.  Carlos' "relentless forward progress" (a quip I had given Jody & Linda the night before) kept us climbing to freedom.  We had told Carlos' wife we planned to arrive at the North Rim around 12-1pm, but we missed our target time by about 4.5hrs.  This was no small task for Carlos' wife, as the drive from South to North rim is FOUR hours one-way.

Eventually, around 4:30pm, we reached the North Rim.  The last 14-miles weren't pretty, but it was relentless.  We stopped, but never for too long.  We kept putting one foot in front of the other knowing that was the only path to our destination.

At the North Rim, I did some light jogging and was preparing myself for a return trip.  Don wasn't going back and I'm not sure Carlos was going to either.  After about 45-minutes of stretching, jogging, etc. my cramps were almost completely gone and I was ready to descend back into the canyon.  But, the sun was setting and Don and Carlos didn't want me to head back in solo.  I knew it would be a long trek back, in complete darkness (it was a new moon that night), but I was prepared (headlamp, extra batteries, etc).  The thought of a soft bed, a warm meal, and something other than sports drink was enough of a temptation to persuade me to call it a day after 11hrs, 31-miles, and 62,262 steps.

North Rim Finish

My companions for this trip made it memorable.  Don's injury(ies) came early but didn't stop him in a display of tremendous determination.  Carlos' energy seemed to grow throughout the day and I look forward to dragging him along for another ultra someday.  Jody & Linda shared in our pain of crossing and joy of accomplishment.  We had good meals, good drinks, and good conversation.  Carlos' wife is to be commended.  She drove four hours one-way, with two kids in tow, to sit and wait for a group of idiots trying to run across the world's biggest ditch, just so she could deliver us some sandwiches and watch us run off again.  And, while we didn't run off again, we couldn't have finished our day without her.

So, our R3 adventure was cut into an R2.  But, that's still nothing to be ashamed of.  Don changed from a road runner to a trail runner over the course of the year.  Both Don & Carlos ran ultramarathons as part of the training.  We all tackled the trails more vigorously than normal.  The work put into preparing was more of a story than the day of our adventure.

Nearly five million people visit the Grand Canyon each year and only 5% actually go below the rim.  Of that 5%, there's not many that complete the crossing in a single day.  This adventure will be assigned a tag of 'unfinished business' in my log book, though.  I will return....and when I do, it will be an R3 day.

--Camelbak Mini-MULE 1.5L Hydration pack(this is actually a kids hydration pack, but I can stuff so much into it!)
-- Mizuno Wave Kazan Trail Shoes
--Shaklee Performance Hydration drink/mix provided by Carol Adams
--Petzl TIKKA headlamp
--Outdoor Research Sun Runner cap
--Sony HDRAS20/B action camera
--Garmin Forerunner 310XT
--Copious amounts of Bodyglide.
--Ridiculous number of PB&Js
--Oat bars

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Tahoe Rim Trail 50-mile Endurance Run....My Turn.

“A Glimpse of Heaven….a Taste of Hell”......Take 2

Last year I had the pleasure of pacing an ultra-runner for the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs 100-mile race.  I paced him for most of the final 50 miles.  Since the moment we finished that day, I wanted to run the 50-miler for myself.....because 100 miles is just CRAZY.
Take the road less traveled....every time.
Some race registrations just aren't as simple as your normal 5K, 10K, Half Marathon, Marathon, etc.  Quite a few ultras, anymore, have lotteries to determine who gets to run.  And, quite often, you have to run a qualifying race to even put your name in the hat for the lottery.  In October, I attempted my first 50-miler with the intention of finishing under 13hrs so I could put my name in the 100-mile lottery.  Unfortunately, I DNF'd (Did Not Finish) at mile-44, ending my chances for the TRT100 lottery this year.  Fortunately, the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance runs didn't require me to provide a qualifying race for the 50-miler, but only 55% of all entrants got selected.  So, late December 2014, we signed me up for the lottery.  And, on the early morning of January 1st, our credit card was charged and we knew my name had been drawn.

For my birthday, in late January, Angela gave me a book by ultra-runner Hal Koerner (Hal Koerner's Field Guide to Ulrarunning).  Even if you aren't willing to go the distance of ultras, I highly suggest his book for all runners.  Advice for everything from diet to race day tactics.  At the very back of his book was a training plan for 50M/100K distances.  The basic gist of the training plan was shorter mileage during the week (6-10miles per day) with back-to-back long runs on the weekends and rest days on Monday.
Find a plan and stick to it!
So, the last week of March, I started the training plan (my first-ever training plan) by skipping the first four days due to a vasectomy the week prior (Ha!).  For the next 15 weeks, I did my very best to stick the plan.  I ran in rain, lightning, heat, mud, etc.  I would put in over 900miles (56+ miles/week), 3 pairs of shoes and countless hours.  Unfortunately, most of my miles were on pavement, but I made the effort to put the back-to-back long runs on the weekends on trails at local state parks.  The time commitment on the weekends was strenuous on my family, but it was something we discussed and agreed upon prior to the start of the plan.

Race Week
This year, we decided to make the race a family affair.  We drove out to Lake Tahoe a week early and spent the week forcing our children to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail each morning.
Hiking up and down the Tahoe Basin

The payoff.....wading in Lake Tahoe!
If you have never experienced the Tahoe Rim Trail or the Tahoe Basin, I highly suggest you plan a week there.  The children might have complained each day, but at the end of the week, they had hiked over 20miles on the mountaintops surrounding beautiful Lake Tahoe.  Throughout our hikes, I told them to keep their eyes peeled for a glimpse of a bear.  We never saw one during our hikes, but as we returned one evening, we were greeted by a baby black bear on our back porch!

Right in the back yard!
Friday night, I packed my hydration pack.  Bars, S-caps, first-aid kit, etc.  I laid out my race outfits (yes, plural....ultras are long races, and a change of clothes is a refreshing moment in the middle of the race).  I checked, and I double-checked.  Everything was there.....I thought.

Race Day
Finally, Saturday, July 18th, arrived.  You never get a good night's sleep before a race (but two days prior you should!).  I was up at 3AM.  I laid in bed running thru the course in my head, like I had done on all the countless runs the prior 16 weeks.  I knew the course.  I knew what laid ahead.  It was finally time to reap the rewards.
Ready to roll!
We made our way to the starting line.  Like the prior year, nothing special occurred.  The race director welcomed us, played a recorded national anthem, and sent us on our way.

The first 5 miles was a steady, but not steep, climb to Marlette Lake.  Since there were so many runners, it was just a single file hike for about 4 miles.  A quick downhill and then a 2-3mile uphill towards the Hobart aid station finally separated the pack and I was able to run for the first time.

Climbing the hillside to Hobart aid station.
Hobart aid station is a wonderful site to see because after the aid station, is a quick climb up Marlette Peak where the views of the race finally start in earnest.

Marlette Lake (foreground), Lake Tahoe (background)
From Marlette Peak, it's mostly a 4-mile downhill on sandy single-track switchbacks to Tunnel Creek aid station.  If you are like me, you don't want to waste a good downhill.  I took those downhills fast....but still under control because those switchbacks come fast and furious.  According to the Garmin, the pace dropped as low as 6:20min/mile for the last couple miles into the Tunnel Creek aid station for the first time.

Tunnel Creek was my first full re-fuel.  They re-filled my hand-held and hydration pack.  I grabbed a banana and headed down to the course's lowest point (6,800') at Red House.  You literally plummet down the mountainside as you drop nearly 1,200' over 2 miles.  But, you are quickly reminded that every downhill comes with an uphill as you must climb 600' up to the Red House aid station.

The long climb back from Red House.
Then, in rude fashion, the course makes an abrupt U-turn and sends you right back up that 1,000' you just dropped in a return to Tunnel Creek aid station for a second visit.  The climb back up from Red house, at approximately mile 17, is where I made my first mistake.  A rock, jumping out of nowhere, caught my foot and sent me directly into a face-plant.  I immediately popped back up and continued the climb with no damage done.  Not 60' later, I slightly tripped on another hidden rock but maintained my balance.  A few choice words followed reminding myself to pay more attention for the rest of the race.

The climb back from Red house....sandy uphill.
My second trip into Tunnel Creek aid station was quick.  A piece of banana, a re-fill on my hand-held, and a quick washing to get the dirt/sand off me from my fall and I was out of there.  The Garmin said 18 miles in 3:14.  Slightly slower than my goal pace (10hrs) but respectable.

From Tunnel Creek to Bull Wheel there is only 3 miles to cover.  Those 3 miles are all uphill thru some rocky, granite, single-track on the ridge line between the Tahoe Basin and Washoe Valley.  Some spectacular glimpses of Lake Tahoe are provided between the boulders.

Bull Wheel aid station is a 'water only' stop.  But, it's an important stop because you won't see another aid station for 9 miles, the longest stretch on the course.  Of course, both the hand-held and hydration pack were topped off in preparation for the trek.

After leaving Bull Wheel, you are tossed onto the backside of Diamond Peak and onto the Incline Trail (leaving the Tahoe Rim Trail).  Once on the Incline Trail it is a nearly 2,000' drop to the Diamond Peak aid station over the course of approximately 5 miles.  It is here where I took solace in knowing that my wife and pacer would be at the bottom of the hill to greet me.  I took a moment to make a short video at mile 25 to later remind myself of my feelings at the halfway point.

My second mistake came somewhere around mile 26.  The course is VERY well marked with markers approximately every 100 meters.  I apparently got caught up in the moment of running and missed a turn.  Two other competitors followed me down the wrong path, too.  A half-mile later, we all noticed our mistake and backtracked to the turn we missed.....adding nearly a mile to our journey thus far.  What's another mile when you are going to do 50 on the day anyhow?

Diamond Peak

Diamond Peak aid station resides at mile 30.  I arrived at Diamond Peak in 6 hours and of my fastest 50Ks.  A person could say this was too fast, or that my problems later on stemmed from getting to Diamond Peak too fast.  But, I was feeling great with no significant pains or injuries and I don't regret getting there as fast as I did.  I ran into the aid station to the cheers of the crowd and the smiling faces of my wife and Mark (my pacer).   It was a lively party filled with hundreds of people.  This is the only place on the course where the 50-mile runners can pick up their pacer.

Picking up Mark at Diamond Peak.

Diamond Peak has been on my mind since I was able to climb it a year ago with John.  They call it 'one of the rudest awakenings trail running has to offer'.  It's a 2-mile climb up nearly 2,000'.  I knew this was coming and it didn't scare me.  I was prepared to walk it all.  I figured if I got thru it in decent time, the rest of the race would be easy enough.
Mark pondering the climb before us.
Last year, I power-walked the mountain at Diamond Peak in under 50 minutes.  This year, I'm not sure what changed.  Perhaps I ran too hard to get to mile 30.  Perhaps I didn't eat enough.  Perhaps I had weary legs from hiking all week.
Up, up, up.....
Whatever it was, I trudged up the mountain alongside Mark in just under 80 minutes.  It wasn't pleasant.  It wasn't pretty.  It drained the life from me.  Mark talked me thru it and we were rewarded with a quick selfie at the peak.

Rewarded for the climb!

You'd think after climbing 2,000' in such a short time, you'd be thru the worst.  After Diamond Peak and a quick pit stop at Bull Wheel again, you are rewarded with a 3-mile downhill back to Tunnel Creek for the third and final time.

For one of the first times on the day, I encountered the beginning of cramps in my right groin and left quadricep.  Thankfully, this wasn't the usual cramps I encounter where I'm writhing in pain on the ground yelling obscenities.  Keeping the cramps at bay was the newest concern and the highest priority with 15 miles still left.  But, to add to the list of concerns, my stomach was not enjoying the EFS drink provided by the aid stations.  I don't usually drink EFS and I know it's not good to try something new on race day, but I had to have my electrolytes and the only thing I forgot this entire trip was my Shaklee electrolyte mix.

Mark knew what to do right away.  He knew I wasn't eating right.  He tried hard to pump me full of sodium, potassium and calories at the Tunnel Creek aid station.  I had to choke down potatoes covered in salt, chicken broth, and bananas.  The only food I seemed to enjoy was watermelon.  Unfortunately, watermelon doesn't provide much nutrition other than water and sugar.

We left Tunnel Creek and I might be able to call the one of the lowest points of the race.  I knew we had to re-trace my steps back to Hobart aid station which meant climbing back up those wonderful switchbacks I had such a fun time flying down early in the race.  Going up was a long hike.  The miles ticked away much more slowly than anticipated.

Marlette Lake again.

Finally, we crested Marlette Peak again.  Something gave me a burst of energy.  Perhaps it was knowing that Hobart aid station was so close.  Perhaps it was the sparkling shores of Marlette Lake far below me.  Marlette Lake can never fully be captured in photos and getting to it requires quite the hike commitment.  Certainly, the effort getting to Marlette is what makes it so mysterious.  No matter, I used that energy to descend the final mile or two into Hobart breaking into a run again.

This new found energy really excited me.  I knew Hobart was mile 40 and only 10 miles were left.  Ten miles seemed so insignificant and something I commonly do without thinking.  We left Hobart with that excitement knowing it was only 3 miles to Snow Valley Peak aid station.

Snow Valley Peak brought me to my knees.  I think I can say it was the lowest point of my day.  Snow Valley Peak, not Diamond Peak, is the highest point on the course at over 9,000'.  The 3-mile climb from Hobart to Snow Valley covered approximately 1,000' of elevation gain.  It seemed insignificant, but as we climbed it was apparent that the elevation was finally going to take it's toll on me.  My breaths were short.  I could never seemingly catch my breath.  It felt like someone was standing on my chest the entire hike up.  The tree-covered mountains gave way to fields of flowers and boulders.
Climbing Snow Valley Peak.
We climbed.  Higher and higher.  Marlette Lake faded into the distance as more of Tahoe came into view.

Finally......I mean.......FINALLY.......we could see Snow Valley Peak aid station.  Snow Valley Peak aid station is manned by the Boy Scouts from Carson City.  They use binoculars to see your race bib from a distance and they greet you by name (as they look it up).  I half-jogged to the aid station and plopped myself down into one of the chairs.

It is here, where I couldn't breathe any longer, at mile 43 that I very nearly broke down.  I wouldn't eat what Mark was offering me.  I'm pretty sure I was on the verge of crying.  Left quad hurt, right calf hurt, right groin hurt, lungs hurt, etc.  There was only 7 miles left, and it was all downhill.  I know that sounds wonderful, but try running downhill for 7 miles in a row sometime.

We left Snow Valley Peak slowly.  The final 7 miles, Mark prodded me to run.  I think we ran about one-tenth of a mile at a time followed by a quarter-mile walk for the duration of the descent.  Every time I stopped running I would grunt and chastise myself.  I knew I should be running this downhill, but I just couldn't.  I was broken.

With just 2 miles left, we made it to the bottom of the mountain and onto the sparkling shores of Spooner Lake.
Spooner Lake
Even with the finish line in sight and within earshot, it wasn't enough to get me running 100% of the time.  We kept up the run/walk tactic.  With less than a mile to go, we finally broke into a jog/run to the finish.

In the end, I came to Tahoe and did what I set out to do.  I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Yeah, I didn't make my time goal, but I did make it to the finish, and that's what really counted that day.  I will be back to run this race again (or perhaps two loops for the 100-miler).  I left something out on that course and I want another crack at it.

None of this would have been possible without two extremely important people.  First, and foremost, my wife, Angela.  You wouldn't believe the number of times she had to get up 4 kids by herself just so I could go out for an early morning run.  She put up with afternoon runs, early morning runs, long runs, two-a-days, etc.  Through it all, she never complained one bit.  Her continual piece of advice was, "Oh, you're GOING to finish."

Secondly, Mark.  Mark has run numerous 50-milers.  Mark traveled all the way from Michigan to join me on probably his slowest 20-mile run/walk in a LONG time.  Mark's knowledge was invaluable.  I might not have listened as well as he would have liked, but I soaked it all in.  You can't put a price on a man's willingness to babysit you thru 20+ miles of hiking, running, sweating, etc.  There really wasn't a moment's pause when I decided I wanted a pacer and who I would ask.  Thanks Mark!  I race will be stronger, better, faster!

Really, there wasn't much doubt I would finish this race.  I put in the miles.  I put in the time.  I had my head on right.  Each race presents it's own unique challenges....some brought on by yourself, some handed out by the course....but you just have to adapt and overcome.

Through the whole race, I kept reminding myself of the quote above.  I really urge everyone to step outside your normal, step outside your comfort zone and at least TRY to do something extraordinary.  You will never know your limits unless you push yourself to them!  This is just a stepping stone in my running journey.  There are bigger things to come this year alone.  And, hopefully, in the near future, I will toe the line for a 100-mile race.