Lessons from the Wall

This past weekend was my second go around at the Sun Mountain 50k. This time it was a training run, but instead of going into it with the plan of running strong and controlled, my plan evolved from confidence in an earlier 50k and became “to crush my old time at any cost.” But, it seems that outrunning hubris is damn near impossible.

It all started a little auspiciously. I couldn’t decide what shoes to wear, I’d forgotten the shirt I wanted to race in and didn’t have anything of whimsy to wear and keep me cheered up along the way, my shoes were either too new or too minimal, and to top it, I realized 5 minuted before the start that my heart rate monitor was in the car — a 10 minute walk away. All the little things that add up. The last one seemed like the biggest deal. I’d gotten used to using my monitor as a brake to keep me from blasting away on longer runs like this. But, I’d studied my paces from last year and knew when I had to be at each aid station to at least beat my time and I knew that I should be happy heart rate wise if I keep those same paces at the fastest.

So, the inaudible pre-race megaphoning turned into a 5 second countdown and we were off. Man, there were a lot of people and they all looked fit as hell. The fitness was no different than last year, but the numbers were larger. The 25k race had ben split into its own day, so there were more entries for the 50k and 50 mile races. And I charged out and settled into what I knew was a way-too-fast pace. The first 5 k roll along Patterson Lake and I was cruising 5 1/2 minute kilometers meaning I was taking off about 30 seconds from last years time each kilometer. I’m fitter now, and I have a better understanding of the distance, but I didn’t think I was THAT fit!

Understanding what it means to run the distance is still a challenge for me after a year in which I’ve done it 5 times. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea that you will be racing for 5+ hours. Not just trotting for a training run, but actually in race mode: observing passes, pushing yourself a bit harder, trying to catch other runners, rushing through aids, and having just a slightly more tense mindframe. I can do the first 2 to 2 1/2 hours. My brain understands that and will find a natural pace to run that in. Beyond there is a terra incognita where mistakes can lead to blow ups of all kinds.

Anyhow, after those 5 kms of beautiful lakeside trail, the route dekes west into the hills and up a draw and the start of the first real climb. I tried to cool my jets around there and started forcing myself to walk climbs that nearby runners were running up. I let people pass and tried to keep myself under control. Without a monitor I didn’t know what my output was. My reliance on technology was exposed and made me uncomfortable. But, I seemed to settle into a pod of people that had about the same idea as I did. After the climb, there’s a long traverse with some ups and downs and, again, I was covering ground quickly. My downhill has improved in the interveneing year and I was racking up a lot of time running down things.

And so it went. I hit the first aid about 10 minutes earlier than last year. I was faster down off the mountain but slower on the intermingled climb owing to some time spent with a friend running the 50 miler (well on his way to an 8:50 effort). Then fast again down the last drop off that first hill and still speedy into the second aid station at km 25 — more than half way through the race.

I was all efficiency at this aid. Ate a lot, downed some salted potatoes from my drop bag, drank tons, took a pee and was off with a handfull of food walking while I ate. Shaved off 6 minutes at that aid alone and left 14 minutes ahead of my time from last year. But, I’d been running as if the race was shorter than it is and was starting to feel it. But I knew I had a long descent before the climb up Sun Mountain so aimed to make some speed on that and keep my pace up at least.

And onward. I kept drinking but somewhere in there I stopped taking gels and focussed on my candy. Strange inner thigh cramps came in at the top of Sun Mountain and coming back around I got overcaffeinated from some Gu gummies. But, I kept pace and was neither passing nor being passed and could see a blob of racers up ahead that I was hoping to pass.

By now it was getting hot. The forecast clouds didn’t materialize, and in the windless coves and valleys the sun was merciless. I’d been drinking my usual 1 1/2 liters per aid and ran dry right as I rolled into the final aid. Knowing the course maybe helped here, but I recalled Patterson being a long climb, but not overly painful last year. So, I charged the aid and was out of there really fast. But, I still wasn’t eating and only managed a bit of melon and some orange and coke and water before heading off. I was at 4:14, a full 21 minutes ahead of my performance last year. What could go wrong…?

Hubris. When reality pulls you out of your brain and back into contact with the world, the result can be painful and the transition abrupt. That orange slice from the aid station hit my stomach wrong and, in hindsight, I needed a gel and maybe a short easy walking break. But, I did none of those things. I kept charging on. “Power walking” up hills and trotting when it got flatter and then power walking into the last slope. As the elevation rose, so did the queasiness in my stomach. Just 100 m vert from the top I turned a switchback and suddenly was in a cold sweat, felt my bowels loosen, and could feel the world closing down on me. I staggered ahead, told the guy behind me to go by; that “I’m just going to take a breather” and laid down in the shade of a ponderosa. And stayed down. People asked after me. I remembered seeing this same hill littered with people last year who looked like fit bastards but were mysteriously collapsed in the shade and wondered why I should be so lucky to cruise on up, mostly painlessly. Well, now that was me collapsed on the hill. I contemplated what would happen if I stayed there. What would happen if I couldn’t get back up? How would I get off the course if I couldn’t walk?

Eventually, a fellow who I’d passed earlier and who was way worse off passed me and that kicked me out of it. I couldn’t let this guy beat me. He really looked like shit. So I clawed my self back to standing and staggered after him. And, as I walked, I felt a little better. A bit shaky, but better. And then a guy behind me was making funny jokes about my sexy, dirty calves, and that helped. And then we were at the top!

I turned and saw that the mountains were more beautiful this year than ever. Snow capped and sharp on the horizon. The wind was whipping up there cooling me down. And so we desceded and somehow my legs actually worked okay. I followed the jokester all the way down and then passed him on the flats (with some guilt and no words ’cause I couldn’t conjure any). I mustered some faster kms and then ground into the last climb. Fuck. But I wouldn’t, couldn’t stop. I ground up and past the previous years turn off passing some people and then imagined that James had lengthened the course by some unknown amount. What if it was 5 more k? He had the right to. What if there was a new hill? I’d planned on the end being in a certain place and had no recourse for a different end. And just as the winding seemed like it would go on and on, it ended. The band played and I could hear people cheer. Then I rounded a corner and heard Kate shout my name and cheer for me and I knew I was home. I remembered to really shake James’ hand this time and thank him for the great race, stopped my watch and was done. I rolled in in 5:41 having spent 12 minutes of the banked time from the first 3/4 of my race on Mt. Patterson. I’d found the fabled wall in a very real fashion and it was costly. But oh well.

After 10 minutes of lying down the first waves of endorphine came and I began to feel the invinceable sense that makes me want to keep trail racing. I slowly started forgetting hubris and started imagining sub 10 hour 50 milers in my near future…

Palpitations, fears and expectations

The neurotransmitters of our brains can be modified pharmaceutically. It’s a blind guessing game. Throwing wrenches into somewhat broken machinery and hoping that the grears that grind to a halt or are clanked back into smoother operation are the correct ones. Hoping that the jammed machine is a better functioning one. The drugs send one into a dizzying climb, a jittery scour for satisfaction, into euphoric post-run satisfaction, into weak-limbed exhaustion that doesn’t jive with personal bests and human speed that may also be experienced. Like this, I will drive to Winthorp, WA to run a 50 k this weekend. I’m eager to push myself, afraid I’ll wobble off the trail or hit an impassible wall. My heart palpitates. My palms are sweaty and I don’t know exactly what is calling the shots. I just know it’s all in my head.

Slow and Easy — The TARC Spring Classic 50k

Last Saturday was the Trail Animal Running Club’s (TARC) annual spring classic. This is a club I’m not a part of in a part of the country that I’m not a resident of and which can feel a little alien to me. During spring, for example, temperatures can range from hot and humid one day to frigid sleet the next. Forests are composed of deciduous hardwoods and the numerous ponds are filled with alien sounding frogs peeping loudly, their cries echoing off of tree trunks. People are just a bit more austere and hard than out west where hippiedom has softened some societal corners while hardening others I suppose. Anyhow, I came out here to work on a project for a couple of weeks and am in the midst of training for a really long (for me) race in July, so I decided to enter a somewhat local ultra marathon during my stay. Luckily, this ultra-running thing has gotten popular enough that there’s usually a race every weekend somewhere within a 200 mile radius anywhere in the US especially once the snow has melted off the landscape as the case may be in New England. While poking around on the Ultrasignup page the TARC kept rising to the top. Lots of races, seemingly good trail folk with a good trail vibe, and a low low price of $20 for an ultra. So I signed up for the 50k some months ago as a way to build my optimism as I fought nagging injury from over stepping my bounds back in December/January.

Double track, New England coastal style. That wet patch became a full-on mudhole by hour 3.

As things do, the race-date eventually rolled around. Leading up to the race, work on the project I was out east for was very demanding and I was following my usual bad habits of staying up too late wasting time on the internet or playing games on my phone and generally being irresponsible about sleep. But, the running had been going well. I’d got a few hard weeks in with back-to-back long runs in the 2 hour range each and some good, hard, shorter runs during the weeks. So, I was feeling somewhat in-shape with a few nagging body issues like an ongoing teneancy for my psoas to start to pop over my femoral head with each step after km 6 of running. Given that this would be a 50 km race, that corresponds to 44 kms of gristly, sometimes audible hip snap. Yuck! I set out with the intention to run 30 kms at the very least, then do an assessment and proceed from there lap-by-lap.

Yes, lap-by-lap. Unlike the other 50ks I’ve run, this one is held at a just-over-10 k course with 5 loops. About this I was ambivalent – the repitition promised to get boring, which was a strike against – but the repitition would also mean easy-access to self-aide and, like a long commute driven day after day, sometimes repeats go by faster the 3rd, 4th, or 5th time through. The race description also promised varied single track with a few dashes of fire-road and just a smidge of pavement. And, the frequent return to the start meant that if my knees or hips blew up, I would be a short way from an exit.

So, on race day after a week of 5-6 hour sleep nights, and a 5:20AM waking I set off in a borrowed Volvo for Weston, Massachussetts from Newmarket, NH. I arrived at the race grounds – a town owned property with horse riding facilities and a nice open field for parking/post race hangout set in Weston, which looks like a very wealthy suburb of Boston with all the New England charm and ostentaciousness you could picture. I rolled into the parking area, packed my stuff and registered and then got in the epic bathroom line and through that in time to have a few minutes to hang out and stretch and wander around.

Weston: New England quaint

This looked about like any other mixed-distance trail race with ultra marathon I’ve been to. Some extremely fit looking bearded 30 somethings who were out to win their races, some super muscular short guys, some tanned and buff older women who have probably won many an ultra, some younger female duos who would almost certainly run the whole distance side-by-side which is an admirable level of non competitiveness that I may never achieve. Some heavy dudes with T-shirts announcing their fund raising campaign. There were lots of Boston accents of course which skewed my media based perception of tough, heavy-set bostonian police/plumbers/detectives/criminals what-have-yous. And then lots of people like me who are somewhere in between – the proverbial middle-of-the-packer age group runners who fill out the field. Overall, there were 350 people running the 4 races and 108 would finish the 50k. The other distances were 10 k, 1/2 marathon, and marathon. And, as usual, I wondered why I hadn’t chosen the shorter race and the longer period of lounging and post-race food noshing. Runnin a half marathon still allows someone to gorge themselves on doughnuts and quesadillas. Why never the pic nic? Always the toil. At the Siskiyou out back, I’m going to feel extra silly about all that distance.

The final pre-race note has to do with the weather. Although the week and even the day leading up to the race had been nice, a weak storm was brewing which would pull down some cold canadian air and promised some steady rain and temperatures near 40 F or 5 C or so. Brrrr. Given my state of travel, I didn’t have much warm clothing with me so, again, was happy for the easy bail-out option in case I grew hypothermic. Skies were grey but not raining at the start so I was hopeful for an erroneous forecast.

Eventually 8:10 rolled around and we were ordered to line up and get ready to run. After the usual pre-ultra inaudible megaphone update, a countdown was begun and soon we were off. By we I mean a lot of people. The 10 k pack was started a tad earlier, but the 1/2, full and 50 k groups were mass started and it made for a busy passage for the first 1/2 lap or so. But, my race strategy was to treat this like a faster training run at least over the first three laps then, if I was feeling really spunky, I’d let myself go for it and hit some target like 5 hrs or something. So, the herd-of-cattle style start helped keep my pace down and heart rate slow early on. And, really, at the beginning of races people usually are running faster than they intend so things were moving pretty well, just a little tight.

Runner supplied aid station pre-organization. I avoided everything but the salted potatoes and the swedish fish I brought.

Strategy. Well, it amounted to a bit of confidence given the advertised flatness of the race and recent good running combined with some knowledge of what I wanted to eat and the benefits of having easy access self-aide on top of the race-provided aid station. Strategy was to eat swedish fish and gels as needed, but at least one gel per lap and lots of swedish fish. My water was my small waist pack/bottle so was borderline too little, but I need to learn to drink less. Shoes were the kinvara trail shoes with socks with the alternative of peregrines and thicker socks if more support was needed later on. I had a gore-tex shell to put on if I got cold and I would eat and drink a lot at the aid stations.

The running in New England is pretty outstanding. There are some nice trail systems near pretty large cities and towns and lots of protected green space intermingled. So, you are never too far from a trail through some hardwood forest, over rolling granite boulder landscape and/or short steep hills. Further north and west the terrain is much steeper and races there rival those in the west for elevation gain and technicality. But, near the coast, the trails are better groomed, often have a nice layer of pine duff and are pretty friendly. The caveat is MUD. The flatness and the deciduous trees combine to make a lot of standing bogs and thick, thick, black mud. Awesome mud. Epic mud. Thick, stinky, black mud. Whereas Vancouver Island mud is runny and sometimes grainy, east coast mud is all thicknesses of fine grain organic ooze. Although the TARC course started somewhat dry, the rain promised to reactivate the dormant mud pits and make the existing ones bigger and badder.

The race started on fire road then switched to trail in about a km. Then, within the first 1 1/2 kms the first mud pit revealed itself. There were options to circumvent which people were slowly doing, you could rock hop directly through which looked slick and dangerous, or you could charge the mud, which at this point looked tacky enough to be doable. So, I chose a mix of rock hopping and direct charging. From there, more trail wound its way through oaks and pines, up steep little hills, and down the back sides of the same. The trail surface was orange/red pine needles interspersed with a few roots and rocks, and the ongoing mud holes. Really, perfect for fast fun running. Just technical enough to keep you awake without slowing you down too much. The trail emptied onto a road for about 200 m and then picked up onto another trail leading around private property along a stone wall, then across a field and back into the woods. The course looped and wound and completely decimated my already struggling sense of direction in this part of the world. I soon realized that, were I to injure, I would have a 1 in 360 chance of picking the right azimuthal direction for walking out of there back toward my car. The two steepest climbs were about 1/2 way through the lap and I took them as walks each time realizing that I could walk about as fast as racers near me but without blowing up my heart rate and without skipping over my race strategy.

As usual, the hip snapping and popping kicked in at about km 7. Right on time and a friendly companion to keep me grossed out for the rest of the race. By km 10 I was feeling otherwise warmed up and breezed through the aid area, logged my lap on the timing mat, took a selfie and headed back out. By then the pack was thinning a little, so the course had fewer people in the way and I could get into a flow. I also had a vague idea where the faster parts of the course were, so knew when to expect slow laps and when fast.

Somewhere in there. Wetter than I look.

And so it went. The early part of the third lap were the most blissful. I hit some kind of running nirvana where everything was flowing nicely and smoothly. Small pains came and went. Some tendons threatened to flare, my knees barked then yapped, then stopped making any noise and just did what knees should do. The aid stations had salted potatoes so I was in heaven there and the volunteers were super friendly about filling my water bottle and letting me hang out and guzzle. And then on the 4th lap everything slowed down. I don’t even know why or how or when it happened but one second I was moving along and the next some 7 minutes had gone by and nary a km was turned over. No blaming the GPS. Everything tightened up, hips, hamstrings, knees, etc and it was just work to get them all to move. A GU helped but really it was mysterious. I think it was a version of a bonk but a sneaky kind with no mental imprint. I was a little stupid at the next/last aid, but onwards. So far the 30 km limit had come and gone and there wasn’t any question about continuing — I’ll save the DNFs for longer races!

Somewhere around km 30 I had picked up the mantra of “easy and smooth, smooth and easy” and was muttering it out loud when I thought I was mostly alone. I easy smoothed my way through the 4th lap and set into the 5th a little rough but determined. I stopped caring about rock hopping and charged through the now massive and deep mud holes. Mud oozed into my shoes and lubricated my feet. I clicked and popped down the piney trails, “power” hiked the hills, and had a gel now and then. And, through the whole lap I started passing people who were getting eaten by the distance. I made some attempts at nailing sub 6 minute kms. The last 2 kms involved a lot of grunting and self encouragement. No more easy smooth at the end. Just grunt and grind and groan and ache and slip and slime. And then I heard people cheering and I turned onto the last stretch of trail before the end and kind of went a little faster for my finish in a strong-for-me time of 5:14:00. Slower than I had hoped by about 14 minutes, but I also didn’t feel totally wrecked (once I got over my finish line push which always kills me). Just hungry and wet and achy which were all remediable things.

Bowlegged (tight psoas) and muddy shod at the end.

I lingered around long enough to eat lots of quesadilla, soup, misc trail snax, hot cocoa, coffee and cocoa, etc. etc. etc. I thanked the race director for a great race. Changed into warm clothes (which took about 20 minutes to complete given my sugarfree brain in an amazing yardsale of socks and pants and shoes and sweatshirs that I just couldn’t figure out) and then went back to the Volvo which, blissfully, had heated seats. I drove back to NH and was back home by 3 PM. Along the way a sense of euphoria came over me that I hadn’t felt in a long while. Finishing the race, finishing strong, and with a mostly intact set of body parts that didn’t seem to be portending any long-term lay ups. I ran the race in minimal shoes and loved it, and it was just fun. Some really blissful running in there and love for the trails and trail running scene in New England. SuperTARCular.

Put back together. Now for a 5 hours drive north through Newmarket then up to the Whites.

That kind of runner


I’m the kind of runner who believes that for each hour of running you are entitled to order one giant Chinese entree. Today’s effort netted me Szechuan fried pork loin, a massive egg foo yung, and a pile of beefy green beans. Yay running.