Dropping Down – Run d’Amore 2013-11-23

I signed up for this year’s Run d’Amore 100 mile run only a few days before the event secure in the knowledge it might not work out for me. I was drastically undertrained, with about fifteen miles under my belt in the previous month thanks to a string of minor injuries and illnesses. I had other races on my calendar for the following weekend, and wouldn’t want to push myself so hard I couldn’t recover within a few days. With a short lead-up I wouldn’t be able to quit caffeine in advance, normally a big part of my 100 mile strategy. Worst of all, on the Wednesday before the event I pulled an eighteen hour overnight shift replacing our office wireless network[1], so making sure I was rested for the race might not be possible.

Nonetheless, I showed up at Harvey Bear Ranch relaxed and excited. Run d’Amore uses the same course as Run de Vous, where I had set my sub-24 PR a few months ago, but they were changing it up this year. The standard version of the course was a nearly flat two mile loop run fifty times, but the new incarnation added a mile out and back along a fairly steep trail, which sounded great to me.

The loop course format lends itself to a great atmosphere, as the one aid station and drop bag location becomes race central. The short stretch of the course you get to look forward to every two or four miles is crowded with other runners you’ve started getting to know, their family and crew, the race directors, and the volunteers. The out and back section only added to this feeling since you can’t help but bump into most of the field during those two miles, no matter how far ahead or behind you are. What’s more, since Harvey Bear hosts three races in this format each year with many repeat runners, there’s a remarkably strong feeling of community around these events. Regardless of how my race went, it was great to run it with so many people I’ve seen there and at other runs in the Bay Area.

I started out relatively fast on fresh legs, worried I was starting too fast but, since I was thinking of it as a training run and didn’t have any particular goals in mind, I didn’t worry about holding myself back too much. I finished my first four mile loop in forty-five minutes, and only slowed about one minute per loop up through mile twenty. I enjoyed running the steep downhill sections on the trail section hard, but found myself having a lot more trouble maintaining a good pace through the end of the asphalt loop then I had at Run de Vous.

By around the 50K mark, I’d slowed to over an hour per loop, and I never managed to speed back up from there. I turned on my iPod and started taking in a little bit of caffeine much earlier than I usually would in a 100 miler.

As soon as night fell, the temperature dropped fast. I felt fine as long as I kept moving, building up a sort of bank of core heat from the downhill trail mile on each loop, but because of this I may not have put on enough layers soon enough.

I left the aid station at mile sixty shivering, with a cup of hot soup in one hand and hot coffee in the other. Once I’d finished them both I tried to move faster, but my right leg cramped up and I found myself limping instead. I decided to skip the trail and run only the asphalt loop – if I recovered, I’d make it up the next time around. If not, I’d take the 100 kilometer finish and call it a day.

It took me an hour to limp those two easy miles. When I got to the timing table and told them I was done, race director Alan Geraldi wouln’t hear of it. He suggested I take a nap and come back to it – even if I slept for three hours I’d still have plenty of time to make the thirty-six hour cutoff. I agreed, since a nap was next on my agenda anyway, but I didn’t see it in the cards.

Of course, when I got back to my car I found I’d left the map light on and the battery was dead, so I wouldn’t be able to run the heater before going to sleep. I crawled into my sleeping bag in the passenger’s seat and passed out for two hours anyway, then found a jump from Donato, the winner of the morning’s 50K, who had Kathy d’Onofrio[2], the co-winner of the 100 mile run passed out in his backseat. I hung out for a while eating and chatting, went back to my car to sleep until morning, got up to eat an amazing breakfast at the aid station, and cheered in a number of runners[3] before heading home.

It’s clear that undertraining and sleep debt were the biggest strikes against me. Still, I don’t think I would have dropped to 100K if I’d started the race committed to a 100 mile finish. Even if I hadn’t had my particularly low moment of shivering with a leg cramp until mile seventy, I might not have considered quitting so easily. But the race was a great experience overall, and I certainly got the kind of training I was looking for without taking myself out of commission for more than a couple days afterward.

As long as I continue to have no regrets, everything will have gone according to plan.

1: Systems administration might not always be the ideal career for an ultramarathon runner, but it turns out there are some overlapping skills.

2: After a huge early lead, she’d been caught at the end by Ed “Jester” Ettinghausen, and the two crossed the finish line hand in hand.

3: Including Catra Corbett, who finished her 100th run of 100 miles or longer that morning.

Cement Posts and Silver Buckles: Run-de-Vous 2013-08-17

From the outside, ultrarunning may look like monotony. To the runner, it is a series of interleaved challenges and endless surprises.

I had little idea what to expect from the Run de Vous 100 mile run. The course was simple: a two mile asphalt loop, with narrow dirt and gravel strips along either side, and a gentle hill at the start of each lap. Access to an aid station and my drop bag every two miles would make logistics simpler than the mountain races I’m used to, and the completely runnable terrain would make be sure to make for a faster time.

Still, I was just coming back from a couple minor injuries after Bryce. My foot was fully recovered, but I knew I’d have to stop to stretch my back often assuming it held up at all. Thanks to recovery time, I felt undertrained. Worst of all, I’d never run more than about 15 miles of flat or paved track, never mind both.

That’s right, I skipped road marathons and went straight for a paved 100 miler. Because I’m smart.

With the path running through a cluster of tents and shade structures for runners, pacers, and crew near the aid station and timing booth, race central reminded me the slightest bit of a back street at Burning Man or Occupy San Francisco in its heyday. It didn’t hurt that there were trays and tables setup with sunscreen and mysterious food-like concoctions, exhausted and sun-fried runners looking for ways to help out, and the same sweaty people kept stumbling through every twenty to sixty minutes.

As the race began at 6:00 am on Saturday, I tried to focus on pacing myself and learning the course. I had no hope of being the fastest runner there, but I had a shot at running the smartest race. In trail runs, my only advantage usually comes from my ability to run relatively fast down steep, tricky terrain, and that wouldn’t be a factor here at all. Good pacing, quick aid stops, perfect nutrition, and cutting the shortest line possible on each lap would be the ticket. Not to mention a whole lot of caffeine.

The first quarter of the race went well. I moved easily, and I think I paced myself fairly well. I settled into a routine of walking a short section of the gentle hill after the aid station and trying to run the rest of the course. I became familiar with the undulations of the track along the irregularly shaped loop, which would help me keep my laps short at night. I had a nice view of a coyote padding through the fenced in cow pasture in the center of the park.

From around miles 28 through 40, I had a much tougher time of things. The heat reached the mid 80s, and there was absolutely no shade along the course. My hamstrings felt like cement pillars, and I feared that with my lack of training for this kind of race, I just didn’t have the conditioning I needed for them to recover. For a while, I thought about dropping.

It occurred to me that I’d experienced this kind of doubt before. It occurred to me that this new kind of challenge was exactly why I’d signed up, and I just needed to get myself through the worst part of it. Finally, it occurred to me that things felt pretty bad, but they weren’t getting worse. Based on the emotional and somatic ebbs and flows of my previous 100 milers, I figured that meant I’d come out the other side feeling great. I’m glad I had that presence of mind, because I was right. I came into the aid station at mile 40 just as it was starting to cool off a little, had some watermelon, and felt revived.

I was still having trouble keeping up a running pace, though. Mostly I kept an eye on my watch and if I couldn’t keep moving faster than a fifteen-minute mile, I’d take a short walk break. It wasn’t until around night fell, the temperature dropped about ten degrees, and I finally figured out the course that I was able to start making up time.

For 19 of the last 20 laps, I walked all of the first third (or two-thirds of a mile) from the aid station to the bench at the crest of the hill. From there, I was able to run the rest of the way in, every time.

It was also around then that I realized if I could maintain this average pace of under fifteen minutes per mile, including my walk breaks and aid stops, I had a shot at finishing in under 24 hours total. I didn’t know if I could maintain it or not. Was I running too much, too hard?

For most of the night I ran under the nearly full moon without my headlamp. Sometime in the small hours, the hillside tore open with the howls of coyotes. I thought about grabbing my headlamp for the next lap, but saved it for moondown after all.

For the first time since I started running 100 mile races, I stopped worrying about finishing and started worrying about finishing fast. Headlands, HURT, and Bryce were about survival. This was about running.

I became obsessed with time, wanting to take less than 30 minutes on each loop so I could build up a margin that I felt certain I would inevitably need. After my watch gave out at mile 82, I would ask for the time each time I came in to finish a lap. After hearing a few disappointing but misleading answers, I started asking for the exact time.

With six miles left to go, I knew I would pull it off. I’d thought about aiming for twenty-four hours when I toed the line, but it had seemed like a fantasy goal until the final forty miles. Now it seemed certain. Walking up the gentle hill after the aid station, I experienced a rush of emotion and unbidden tears of joy, as intense and as beautiful as nearing the finish of my first 100 almost a year before.

I ran all of the 50th lap.

I finished in 23 hours, 31 minutes, and 35 seconds. It was my first sub-24 hour finish, and my first top ten finish as I placed eighth overall.

With a few naps mixed in, I stuck around to cheer for as many of the incredible people who were still out there running as I could. Less than a full lap behind me was 13 year-old Miguel Vivaldo, who would set a new world record as the youngest sub-24 hour 100 mile finisher. I don’t know what distance she was going for, but I was told that one woman who was walking the course had had chemo the previous Monday. Several people kept pushing for a 100 mile finish straight through to Sunday afternoon, when temperatures were in the 90s and there was still absolutely no shade on the course.

Race director Rajeev Patel would say Run-de-Vous is “about you,” but I’m pretty sure it was about them. I feel great about what I pulled off last weekend, but those people are just amazing.

Split times, for posterity:
10.05 miles: 01:47:00
20.10 miles: 03:45:00
30.15 miles: 06:06:00
40.20 miles: 08:50:00
50.25 miles: 11:22:00
60.30 miles: 13:59:00
70.35 miles: ????????
80.40 miles: 18:58:00
90.45 miles: ????????
100.5 miles: 23:31:35

Running to O’ahu

I’m writing on the plane to Honolulu. In five days, I’ll be running my second hundred miler, the HURT 100. This one has a reputation. It’s been a long, fun, and sometimes ill-advised journey to get here.

I don’t know what it was exactly that possessed me to sign up for this race. I’d recently completed my first fifty miler, and I was pretty sure I wanted to try a longer distance someday, when I saw an email announcing that sign-ups would be open soon. Maybe that timing was enough. Deciding to take on the HURT 100 was bad enough, but deciding to take in on as my first?

People often roll their eyes when I mention it’s a hard hundred miler, as though running a hundred miles is already such an impossible feat, there couldn’t possibly be much delineation. Among ultrarunners, though, HURT has a reputation, and not just because of its cutesy intimidating name. It never stops climbing or descending, and by the time you’re done you’ll have climbed 25,000 feet. It’s in the Hawaiian rainforest, which means tricky terrain full of roots, rocks, river crossings, and endless mud, not to mention heat and humidity. If all that weren’t bad enough, the time limit is set tight at 36 hours. I’ve talked to people who have squeezed in finishes close to 48 hour cut off at Hardrock 100 in the high San Juans of Colorado, bagging 14,000 footers and struggling for air as they go, but timed out at HURT. One of them repeatedly on both counts.

So it sounded hard, sure, but it sounded amazing. The rainforest would be beautiful, and my favorite kind of running has always been on gnarly technical trails. I’d just have to get better at climbing. Endlessly.

Sign-ups opened at the end of July, and I surprised myself by forgetting to hover nervously before clicking “Submit.”

When they ran the lottery two weeks later, I only landed a spot on the waitlist anyway. Worst of all, I was #28 on the list. Judging by the last two years’ waitlists, I was just on the cusp – I’d probably get in, but I might not, and I had about four months of uncertain traning to slog through until I’d know for sure.

I lasted about three weeks. I didn’t stop training, but I found another race. Last year’s (2012) Headlands Hundred has been cancelled, then out of the blue reinstated under new management. It was only a week away, but I signed up and got my gear together.

Okay, sure, I was probably undertrained and hadn’t really tapered, but I figured whenever I ran my first hundred miler, it would be hard, it would be impossible to fully prepare myself for, and to some degree it would just have to suck. I was right on those counts, and fortunately it was also amazing. I learned a lot from Headlands that I don’t think I’d have any hope of getting through HURT without. Like that you need more than a week to prepare for a hundred miler.

Headlands left me with a little bit of ankle pain that I took too long to get diagnosed. Specifically, I waited until after Firetrails 50 a month later. Rather, I waited until after a few weeks of recovery from Firetrails 50. Oops. No damage done, but I might have missed out on some good training time.

Finally, in December, I moved off the waitlist to the entry pool. I ramped up my hill training, and started using the steam room or heading out for long runs with extra layers of fleece. Even in California, heat training takes work in the winter.

I joined a few other HURT runners and like minded fools for a forty mile nighttime training run in the mountains the weekend before Christmas. It all had a bit of a Tolkien feel as the eight of us set out into the woods at dusk. Two would turn back before it was (okay, got) too late. One would be separated from his companions and become horribly lost. Of course, I was that one.

At a certain junction where the trail apparently crossed the road, I was just a little bit behind another runner. I thought I saw his headlamp bounce off down the logging road which went down the hill off the road to the right instead of crossing. Something about it didn’t look right to me, but I couldn’t find where the trail was supposed to go, and I was pretty far ahead of the pack behind me, so off I went instead of waiting. Oops.

The problem with logging roads at night is that they are in fact a maze of twisty passages all alike. That there were no trail markings on any of the intersections was my second sign that I’d gone wrong. That I hit a dead-end at the stream with no crossing that didn’t involve a twenty foot drop was about my fourth. That I tried to backtrack to the road and ended up in someone’s backyard was actually pretty funny, but when I ran back down the road to where I’d gone wrong I still couldn’t see how I went right. So I went back down the logging road. Like a boss.

Eventually I figured out that if I gave up on finding the trail and ran along that road, I’d find the main park entrance, which also happened to be our next major landmark on the trail. I lucked out and managed to pick up the trail from the road sooner than that, only two miles up, but all told my foray in logging added six miles to the run and I no longer had any hope of catching up with the group.

We’d had a lot of rain that weekend, so the stream crossings were high. The majority had footbridges or were still small enough to feel quite safe, until I got to one about five miles from the end of the trail where the bridge was out. I didn’t know the area well enough to trust that I’d be able to backtrack and use another trail to get out (as half the group did), and backtracking all the way to where I could thumb a ride or otherwise find help could have meant risking hypothermia. Instead, I pulled out a perfect example of don’t try this at home, and crossed hip-deep white water solo at 4:00 am five miles from the trailhead.

The first step was cold, but protected and still. The second step was into rushing water that wanted to suck me down stream, so I plunged my foot all the way in until I could wedge it into the rocks below. From there I could grab a boulder that was just submerged, and leverage my way up onto an exposed rock for steps three and four. Step five was onto a mossy boulder on the far shore, but I only had a one-inch ledge. I grabbed the top of the boulder at my full armspan with my fingertips, grateful for some rusty rock climbing experience, and, fatigued from forty miles of night running but terrified of falling backwards, hoisted myself over the top.

Five more miles of easy running, some urgent I’m-okays from the stupid smartphone and a nap in the back seat, and I was starting to feel better about my chances of getting through this HURT thing.

All I’ve gotta do is run smart. That shouldn’t be so hard, right?