Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Pinhoti 100 (or is that 52?) Race Recap

The Louisiana crew including Will Sprouse, but missing David.  Sam (far right) and David would prove to be the only two from our group to cross the finish line this year.

Saturday's Pinhoti 100 started as most trail races do, inconspicuously. 
Everyone lined up at an invisible starting line, counted down from 10, then someone said "Go", and we were off - for about a minute until the crowd of runners all hit a bottleneck trying to cram onto a single track trail, where we found ourselves at a complete stop.  There was a bit of grumbling but for the most part everyone just laughed about it until we were finally able to all squeeze in and start our race.

When watching the extended weather forecast in advance of the race, the high temperatures went from 50's to 60's and finally settling into the upper 70's, with the overnight low being 58 degrees.  Much warmer than is ideal for a race of this distance, and considering the accompanying high humidity, it made for a steamy day.  By the time I reached the first aid station about 6 miles in, I was already drenched with sweat and I would stay that way for the entire race. 
Foot care at the first aid station - feet were already soaked by two ankle deep water crossings.

In the race description, the first 40 miles are described as "rolling hills" with the larger climbs being on the second half of the race.  Well, sorta.  The first 40 miles actually has more than half of the elevation gain of the entire course.  That would have been good information to know going into the event. For my friends familiar with Eagle Rock loop in Arkansas, the "rolling hills" in the first 40 miles are similar to the climbs on that trail.  Some of the climbs are long and steep - on one of the first climbs, there were a few runners, myself included, who had to stop half way up to catch our breath and wrap our brains around the rest of the climb.  Rolling hills.  This was also the section where I saw incredibly fit people having their hands pushing down on their knees to help them in the climb.  Rolling hills.  The most common quote heard on that sections was some variation of "Rolling hills my ass". 
First 40 looks pretty tame, doesn't it?

BUT - this was an incredibly beautiful section as well.  The climbs were rewarded by views of hillsides covered by vivid fall colors.  One view, in particular, was right after you rounded a corner on a climb and it completely took the little breath I had away.  It was stunning and it looked like the hillside was on fire with color.  When another runner rounded the corner behind me, he let out a loud "Woop" when he saw it, and all I could do was smile.  

Not my picture, but this is Mt. Cheaha.  The colors are much more vibrant in person.

As I mentioned before, the temperature was a real issue during the race.  With the temps and humidity, the race staff was not quite as prepared as they could have been for how much fluid the runners would require.  There were a few aid stations that ran out of different types of drinks (Coke, Ginger Ale - both important during ultras for settling sour stomachs), and by the time the later runners went through, some were out of water as well.  I suspect this might have been partially responsible for some of the carnage that I saw at the aid stations and along the trail - runners vomiting, full body cramps, etc.  Over the 10 year history of this race, this is the second hot year, and I think it caught the organizers by surprise.

Despite the lack of fluids at some of the aid stations, the volunteers for this race were incredible.  The BUTS (Birmingham Ultra Trail Society, or something like that) group at mile 27 were the all out winners in my book.  You could hear their aid station before you saw it - or should I say, you could hear very loud Jimmy Hendrix music filling the woods well before you could see the aid station.  It was so welcome, as their aid station came right in the hottest part of the day.   Just before their aid station was a gorgeous waterfall.  I stopped with a couple of other runners for a second to enjoy the view, then started the climb up to the aid station.  This climb was made immensely more pleasant after crossing runners who were leaving the aid station with popsicles in their hands. As hot as we were, this was a much needed boost.

Leaving the BUTS aid station, I knew I only had a half marathon to run before I could pick up my first pacer, Kelly.  Usually during a 100, I don't pick up a pacer until 60 miles or so, and I was a little concerned that I wouldn't be ready for company that soon.  On this day though, I was counting down the aid stations until I would get to have someone to keep me company. On this day, the plan was to get Kelly from mile 40 - 65 and Fawn from 65 to the finish.  The other runners that I was meeting were fighting their own demons with the tough conditions, so someone with a fresh attitude would be very welcome.
So happy to have company for the night time portion of the race! 

At this race, you can pick up a pacer at mile 40, at the top of Bald Rock (or Mt. Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama).  According to the elevation profile of the course, this appeared to be the steepest climb of the race.  After some of the climbs that we had already done to get to this point, the climb up Bald Rock was not anything new.  Yes, there were rocky sections as you approached the top, and yes it was steep, but at that point it was just more of the same.  Knowing that I would get to see my crew at the top was all the motivation I needed to get to the top of the mountain.  Randy, Kelly, Fawn and Justin had given up their weekend to come out to Pinhoti to support me and the other Louisiana runners there, and words can not express how grateful I am for each of them.

This was a critical aid station for a few reasons - it was the last one I would see during the daylight - so it was time to don my headlamp.  It was also near the halfway point so it was time to do a little housekeeping - change out of my soaked shirt to put on a fresh one (which would also be soaked with sweat within a few miles, but still worth it), put on dry socks (my feet had been soaked from water crossings within the first 5 miles of the race, and would be soaked again from water crossings soon after changing, but again, still worth it), reapply lube to any place that might have friction to avoid chafing (TOTALLY worth it!), visit the restroom (the only one on the trail other than the start line (except for the woods - natures restroom), and take in some much needed calories to get me through a night of running.  Thankfully, this aid station was very well stocked, so I took advantage of it by enjoying some chicken noodle soup, some coke and grabbing a couple of cookies for the road, or trail as it was.

So, Randy helped get me ready and restocked and Kelly and I took off towards Blue Hell - the infamous descent down Mt Cheaha.  Evidently this section is well known for not being well marked and it being easy to get off trail and lost, because numerous people warned us about it, so we were going to be extra attentive in looking for the course markings. 
To give you an idea of what Blue Hell looks like in the daytime.  Not sure if he is running or in the process of falling.
Kelly and I get into the line of runners heading down Blue Hell.  Since it is such a steep descent, I wasn't comfortable having runners right behind me, so I told Kelly to pull aside and let them pass us so we could take our time.  Once everyone passed, we started our descent behind an older gentleman named Ed.  Ed was also taking his time on this tough section because he didn't want to "fall and crack my skull open" - I had to agree with him there.  At this point, my legs were feeling the fatigue and I didn't completely trust them so I went down a good portion of Blue Hell by scooting on my butt.  We hiked, tiptoed, scooted down Blue Hell behind Ed until he mentioned that it had been a while since he had seen a flag.  At this point we all realized that we were so focused on avoiding grave bodily injury that we had also lost sight of the course markings.  Insert foul language here.  

We all agreed that one way or another we had to get down, so we decided to continue our descent and look for flags around the bottom.  Bad idea.  When we got to the bottom, we looked and found nothing.  Kelly climbed the hill to the right to look over it for flags, nothing.  Ed yelled "Hello" ... nothing.  This is when Ed decided to climb back up and try to find where we lost the flags, and Kelly called Fawn (for some crazy reason, we had coverage) and had her text us the coordinates to the next aid station.  Worst case scenario, we could hike through the woods in the direction of the aid station and hopefully stumble upon the trail.

After a few slips on the steep climb, giving us all a scare, Ed saw a headlight approaching and yelled at the runner, getting him to stop.  He yelled back down to us that he found someone, so we started climbing in that direction.  It looked something like this:

Clearly not me, but this is some other dude climbing up Blue Hell. He got this treat in the daytime.
This was a big mental hit for me.  I started the race conservatively as planned, and slowly gained time to put myself right at my 26 hour pace that I was aiming for.  This little detour caused me to start thinking too much:  How much time had we spent down there?  How much energy had I wasted worrying about whether we would find our way out any time soon?  What toll would the extra effort take out of me?

We made it to the top, all along the climb begging the other runner and Ed not to leave us there.  Of course they wouldn't  have, but it seemed important at the time to emphasize the point.

Once we were off of Mt Cheaha, and on a jeep road section, we were able to laugh at what had just happened, and head to the next aid station where Randy was waiting.  When I got there, Randy told me that I had 30 minutes to get out of that aid station to stay ahead of the cut off.  I never take more than 5 minutes in an aid station except for major maintenance, and then no more than 10 - 15 minutes, so that wasn't going to be a problem, but it made that concern that was in the back of my mind come into full focus.  Now, I was no longer pushing forward to get back to my 26 hour pace, I felt like I was being chased by the clock, and I didn't like it.

Kelly and I scooted out of there in plenty of time and headed to the next aid station which was just shy of 7 miles away.  The Hubbard Creek aid station folks are famous for their hospitality and making their aid station a little too comfortable for the runners.  They consist of mainly Boy Scout parents.  Years ago, the RD was looking for volunteers to work his aid stations, so he enlisted the help of the scouts.  The Scoutmaster requested the most remote aid station possible to turn this into a camping experience as well as a community service project for the boys.  Well, fast forward a few years and the scouts have all aged out of the program, but the parents have so much fun volunteering to help out the runners, they have continued the tradition and added a few friends to the mix along the way.  And they had a pizza oven and full bar.  Seriously.

The section heading into Hubbard Creek is a tricky one for footing - narrow, technical trail with a big drop off to reward any missteps.  I knew we were losing time here because my legs were heavy and my footsteps were clumsy - and this combination on this particular section of the trail was making me nervous about serious injury.  At one point, I planted my foot on a smooth rock on the trail and slipped, grabbing on to the hillside by the roots sticking out of it, all the while making up new curse words and creating new ways to use old ones. Once I got my legs back under me, I looked up at Kelly and said something profoundly poetic like, "F this race and F this trail, I'm done".  And with that, the decision was made.  Well, mostly.  Kelly spent the next few miles trying to talk me into continuing, even though we knew at the next aid station we would now only be 10 minutes ahead of the cutoff.  

This is where I have to give big props to Kelly.  She did a solid job as a pacer.  She kept up the conversation, made me laugh, and kept us moving forward at a good pace.  It really was great to have her out there, and it was also good that she knows me well enough to know when to respect the decision I have made.  Kelly is a solid friend to have.  (And she LOVES the word moist. Next time you are around her, be sure to work it into the conversation.)

By the time we pulled into the aid station, I was comfortable with my decision to drop.  With only a 10 minute lead on the cutoff and the largest climb ahead of me, I figured timing out (missing the cutoff) of this race was inevitable at some point, so I may as well live to fight another day.  I declined the volunteers offer of Fireball, but took them up on the grilled cheese sandwiches and waited for Randy to come pick us up. Not the way I envisioned my race ending, but better than this guy:

A runner at Hubbard Creek who had been vomiting for the previous 6 hours, and the aid station nurse, Jaycee, keeping watch over him.

I leave you with a few things that experience has taught me that may or may not resonate with you:
  • Someone asked if I was upset about all that wasted training... There is no such thing as wasted training.  I am not training for one race, but for life.  I want to be fit and healthy enough to jump into any cool adventure that might come along. Every mile run and parking tower climbed brought me to a better understanding of my mind and body, and deepened the relationships with the people I shared them with.  No such thing as wasted training.
  • Someone asked if I would regret dropping...No.  I don't spend much time looking backwards.  Everything that happens in life happens for a reason, and that reason may not be something I am ever privy to.  It could be that through my handling defeat graciously, someone else is encouraged to take a risk of their own... who knows, but no, I don't do regret.
  • I am not defined by one thing that I do.  It is just one thing that I do.  I don't call myself an ultrarunner because it is such a small part of who I am.  Because my identity is not closely tied to this one thing, it is easier for me to make objective decisions during a race.  I entered this race fully expecting to come home with a buckle - to the extent that I was a little aggravated that I had forgotten my belt at home.  Had I packed my belt like I intended, when I returned home yesterday I would have just unpacked it and put it back on the shelf for future use. 
It was just a bad day on a tough course.  The race had a 45% drop rate, and had half of the sub 24 hour finishers as previous years.  Tough day for many well trained athletes, but for the ones who pushed through and were able to finish ... how amazing!!  We spent time at the finish line on Sunday waiting for friends to come through and cheering for other runners, and every one of them has my complete respect.  Ours is a beautiful sport and every finish line is a testament to the human spirit.  The fact that the finish line is not guaranteed is what makes it so glorious when you reach it.  

On to the next adventure.  Happy Running, Y'all!


Monday, October 9, 2017

26 Days

26 days.  That is how long I have until I toe the line at my next 100 mile race, Pinhoti.  26 days to figure out what clothes and shoes I am going to wear, what I will eat, what other essentials I will pack...  

26 days seems like a lifetime when it is something you have been looking forward to for 8 months now.  If I were a spreadsheet person, I could tell you how many miles I have run in preparation, but I'm not, so let's just say it is a fair amount.  Miles that included an unfathomable number of parking towers and speed intervals.  Miles that included buckets of sweat (remind me not to train for an early winter race again while living in south Louisiana - what was I thinking?).  Miles that included quality time with some of my absolute favorite human beings because running a 40 mile training run together is the best way to discover someone's true character.  And,  I am happy to say that my suspicions were confirmed -  I have the most incredible friends.

These knuckleheads are pacing me.  Don't leave your phone with them or you will get back to this.

And this one is crewing for me.  I am in good hands, and there will definitely be beer.
So here I am entering my peak week of training, facing 75 miles or so of running in record heat for this time of year.  Seriously, all I can do is laugh about it.  I will wrap up this week with a 50 mile run on top of the levee on Saturday with a group of like-minded fools who actually get together and do this stuff for fun, then I get to taper.  I say that like it is a blessing, but I actually dislike the taper because that is when all of the self doubt and phantom pains set in, and miraculously disappear when you get to the race site.

What a tremendous blessing it has been, this training season.  Saturday will be my 5th ultra distance training run (any distance over a marathon - 26.2 miles), and in a strange way, while I am tired and ready to race, I am not in a rush for the training to end.  I decided early on in this training to embrace the journey, and I have.  I have actually enjoyed it, leg cramps and dry heaves included.

So 26 days from now I get to run a point to point 100 mile run on the trails in Talladega National Forest.  We will start at 7 am, and I will finish when I have covered 100 miles, whenever that is.  I am truly happy about getting to experience the 100 mile journey again.  I have completed the distance 4 times in the past, and every time I have learned more about myself and how I deal with adversity.  I can't wait to see what this race teaches me.  My 100 mile experiences have helped to form me in my personal and professional life more than anything else.  I remember telling a friend once when he was training for his first 100 miler, when asked about the distance, "It will scrape you to your core.  You'd better like what you find there."  I am curious to see what I will find there this time.

Happy Running, Y'all!


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

I wouldn't have listened either.

Now don't take the title of this post as being negative - it is just being honest about the potential good this may do, but I figure it is worth a try.  It's the age old saying, "If one person is helped..."

A few months ago I noticed an odd spot on my shoulder.  I am fair skinned and freckle/burn easily so I am always very aware of any changes in my skin.  After watching the spot for a bit to see what it would do, I decided to get it checked out.  I called a couple of dermatologists on my insurance and the answer was the same - we can see you in six months.  Wow - did I ever go into the wrong business!  Luckily, a trail running friend also happens to be married to a dermatologist, and after contacting them they were able to see me sooner.  Good thing, too, since the diagnosis was that the spot was basal cell carcinoma.  Skin cancer.  It is a "good" cancer to get, if you have to get one at all, but it still has to be removed or it will continue to grow.  The skin immediately around the spot had to be removed as well to be sure they got it all, leading to a slightly larger scar, but also more peace of mind.

Since my doctor is married to a runner, she understood what she was dealing with.  When asked about running post surgery, she just asked me to give her two days of rest because of the increased bleeding risk from the incision, so I did.  The surgery was on Monday, so I moved my Tuesday run to early Monday morning and took the following two days off.  My Saturday long run was a little uncomfortable with stitches in my shoulder, but she cleared me to do it, just saying to refrain from excessive arm movement.  It was a hot, humid slog for a little over 2 hours.  I am not sure my legs were actually moving, much less my arms.

My stitches were removed yesterday so now I am just left with this lovely scar, which will fade over time...

Now that I have had one instance of this, I am 50% more likely to have another pop up in the next 5 years.  All those years outside all day as a kid, and a couple of bad sunburns have taken their toll, but there are things I can do to prevent recurrence as much as possible.  I have begun wearing long sleeved UV protectant shirts and a hat on EVERY run, and I am wearing lotion with sunscreen on any exposed skin every day.  

I anticipated wearing long sleeves to run in south Louisiana summertime to be completely miserable, but I have been pleasantly surprised.  Believe it or not, once you soak through the shirt, even the slightest breeze created by running has a noticeable cooling effect.

So, here is the advice most of you will not heed. (As the title notes, I wouldn't have listened either.)  Consider looking into long sleeved UV tech shirts.  Save yourself any additional sun damage, and hopefully avoid getting a chunk of your skin cut off.  Or don't.  But if you are interested, here are the shirts I found that are a great price and not terribly heavy to run in.  

Happy Running, Y'all!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Decreasing and Increasing

"Minimal" - it is a word I have spent much time thinking about over the last 6 years or so.  At some point in my life, I realized that my life was full - but not in a good way.  My life was full of noise, and stuff, and obligations, and expectations put upon me by others (with my permission).  It was also when I realized that despite all of that,  I felt completely empty.  

It has been a 6 year journey since my divorce to get to a point where I understand where I want to be, and what is worth spending my most valued possession - my time - on.

Finally, I find myself in the last phase of this part of my journey, downsizing my life so that everything I own (except for my vehicle) fits into the smallest space possible.  Through this slow purging of "stuff", I now feel lighter than I can ever remember feeling since I was a kid living in my parents' home.  

Besides cleaning out the physical clutter, I have cleaned out quite a bit of emotional clutter as well.  I have worked hard for the last years to minimize the impact others are allowed to have on my sense of well being.  Slowly, I am able to recognize when someone is being toxic, and rather than soaking in their venom, I realize that their ugliness reflects on them, not me, and I move on.  I have no control over anyone else's happiness, and I have no responsibility for it.  I never want to be the cause of someone else's grief, but I also can not be the cure for it.

So, as I am doing the final de-clutter, in anticipation of moving next week into a small cottage near downtown (in the PERFECT area for running directly from home), I have boiled it all down to this:  If it doesn't have REAL meaning, or if it is not an essential item, it is not coming along.  

I have done the same thing with my social media feeds.  Anyone who is consistently negative has been hidden.  I don't want to unfriend people - I still like them and want to be friends with them, but I will keep that exposure to once in a while when we are face to face.  If I get to the point that someone's social media posts are affecting the way I feel about them, when I know I like them in our face to face contact, I simply hide their posts. My newsfeed is decidedly upbeat now, except for the occasional grump when someone is having a bad day - totally acceptable.  

Years ago, when I would think about what I "wanted", the list had many objects on it.  Now, when I list the things I want out of life, very few if any are things that can be bought.  I still have a ton of work to do, but I am on the right path, and hopefully that path leads through the woods.  And maybe to a waterfall or two.

Happy Running, Y'all! 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Pinhoti Training - Phase 1 Complete

For the first time - ever - I have an official coach for an ultra.  The first few that I did years ago, I found training plans online, attempted to follow them, and ended up injured.  Then for the next 20 or so, I pieced together my own plans with decent success.  My times consistently got faster, but I knew there was something missing.  For Pinhoti 100 miler in November, I reached out to my friend and mentor, Joe Prusaitis and asked him to coach me.  Joe has been running ultras and race directing them for years.  He knows everything there is to know about the sport, and I trust him completely.

Joe and I after the finish of my 2nd 100 miler
After watching ultrarunners for years and seeing what works and doesn't work, Joe has changed his philosophy a bit, and the new philosophy suits me just fine.  Gone are the weekends with back to back long runs.  Also gone are the 100 mile peak weeks, replaced by a peak of 70ish miles, but with higher intensity workouts.

The philosophy of this plan is periodization.  The training is broken into concentrated chunks where you do one specific workout consistently, until there are no gains to be made from it, then you have a week of recovery and move on to another challenge.  The first few months are focused on building cardio (speedwork).  

I just finished the first stage where I had 5 workouts of:  5 - 3 minute bursts (as fast as you can run) followed by 3 min recovery, over a 60 minute run.  By the end of this phase, I was beginning to understand periodization.  The first of these workouts was tough.  The 2nd and 3rd were easier and my intervals got faster.  The last two, it was tough to maintain my interval speed (7:15 - 7:30), and by the last interval of the 5th one, it was  a slug out.  I feel like I squeezed everything I could out of this segment, and it ended just as I was getting burned out on it, and inching closer to possible injury.  

Now I am in a week of easy 60 minute runs, and looking forward to the next segment of longer speed intervals.

I am committed to sticking to this plan.  It will be a long, sweaty summer, but I think the dividends will be great come race time.  

Check this out if you want more info on this concept.

I'll check in after the next stage of training to give another update.  

Happy Running Y'all!


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

2017 Red Dirt Ultra

Waiting for the start.

  1. sur·re·al
    1. having the qualities of surrealism; bizarre.

      "a surreal mix of fact and fantasy"

      synonyms:unrealbizarreunusualweirdstrangefreakishunearthlyuncannydreamlike, phantasmagorical
      "a backdrop of surreal images"

  2. This is the only way I can describe last weekend for me.  It has been hard to put it into words over the last few days, but I am going to give it a shot, so hang on.

Leading into Red Dirt, people kept asking me if I was nervous, and I would answer them honestly and say "no".  I had been planning this race and working on even the smallest details for a year.  I knew that all of the logistics were covered and I had the best possible people in place to make the race go smoothly.  My team is completely competent and once they were set to a task, I no longer had to worry about whether it was going to be done correctly.  We were ready.

But, in the back of my mind, I was waiting... waiting to get nervous or have doubts; waiting for something unexpected to happen; waiting for some unforeseen kink to show itself.  None of those things ever happened.

All of the planning, meetings, race dreams, middle of the night wake ups while details of the race ran through my head...it all paid off, and the race came off without a hitch.  Or at least without any major ones - there is always room for improvement, and we are working on that for next year.

Instead of being nervous, I was completely at ease all day.  There was anticipation - it felt like my kids were running, and every time a runner finished, there was a sense of pride and relief that they accomplished their goals.  I must say, the finish line hugs were my favorite part - even if you guys smelled pretty bad sometimes.  :-)

I loved every minute of the race, even the set up and tear down.  I loved visiting with the families and crews while they were waiting on their runners.  I loved seeing runners head back out that gate for another loop.

From the first runner to the last runner, regardless of pace or time on the clock, every single one did something amazing this weekend, and I could not be more proud or more humbled.

THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart for having faith in me and trusting that we would take care of you.  It was an honor, and I am already looking forward to Red Dirt 2018!  

Course tear down complete.  Time for some rest.

See you guys next year!  

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Finding My Way

For years now, I have told people that I don't know what I want to be when I grow up (I am 46).  Over the last 6 months to a year, I have finally figured it out, and things are taking shape.  On February 4th, I will host my first trail ultra as a race director, the Red Dirt Ultra in Kisatchie National Forest.  I have put on various shorter races over the years for different causes, but this is my first ultra (any distance over a marathon (26.2)).

I have been asked many times over the last few weeks if I am nervous about it, and I can honestly say "no".  This really does feel like the most natural progression for me.  I love the sport.  I love the people who choose to participate in the sport.  I love being out in nature.  I love my friends who are generously offering to give up their weekend to help our runners succeed.

Next Thursday, we will begin arriving at Kisatchie to mark the 31 mile course and get the aid stations set up and stocked.  Runners will start pulling in Friday evening for early packet pickup and I will get to meet these amazing people and reunite with old ultra running buddies.

Saturday morning, we will be out there by 4 a.m. to set up and be ready for race day packet pickup, then we will hold a short trail briefing and they are off at 6 a.m.  Over 80 runners will take off onto a dark trail to attempt to achieve something amazing, running either 31, 62, or 100 miles.  Over 1/3 of the field is made up of folks attempting their distance for the very first time.

This will not be an easy race. I have run the 31 mile loop quite a few times, and it is challenging but beautiful, and incredibly peaceful.  When the runners cross the finish line and I get to put their medals around their necks, or hand them their belt buckles for the 100 miler,  there will be no doubt in my mind or theirs that they earned it.

The journey to this point has been filled with angels, people stepping up to help and offering services for the race that I would have never considered asking for.  So many wonderful people have reached out to be a part of this race, that it is not just mine, but ours.  Everyone that will be out there running and volunteering has ownership in the success of this race.

I am so ready to officially kick off this part of my journey.  The starting line for the runners is the figurative starting line for this amazing chapter in my life, and I am so grateful for the people that I get to share it with.