Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Race Report-Pikes Peak Ultra, A Day of Fun and Learning

Oh man, here I go again

I signed up to run the Pike Peak Ultra back in April.  With two failed attempts at a 50-mile race, I was determined to, finally, complete this distance.  I completed Rim to Rim to Rim (50.3 miles) at the end of April but that was a leisurely stroll with friends.  However, the Grand Canyon trip gave me confidence and I felt that I could complete a tough 50-mile race.  The Pikes Peak Ultra takes you into beautiful Cheyenne Canyon and up above 11,000 feet to the South and West of Pikes Peak.  The most brutal part is ascending the technical trail of Mount Rosa (about 1,800 feet in 2 miles) at 35 miles of the race.   I kindly refer to this part of the race as “kick’em while they are down.”  However, Mount Rosa has a spectacular 360 view that includes Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak, Santa De Cristo Mountain Range and Collegiate Peaks Mountain Range.  

You will never run again

Before we go further, let us go back 6 years ago.  I had just had my second major back surgery in 2 years and was on complete bed rest with a back brace.  I could only walk 100 feet and I was on heavy narcotic medication for the pain.  1 ½ years earlier, I’d been in a car accident while I was stationed in Germany and the disc in my lower back crushed the nerve root on the left side.  I could not lift my left foot up and needed a cane to walk.  My first surgery helped to alleviate most of the weakness but I still had pain in my leg.  The second surgery helped with the pain but it would take a while to recover.  I was told that I would probably not run much again and be restricted on lifting.   I began with swimming and light lifting for the first 1 ½ years.  I transitioned to hiking with pack and heavier lifting.  2 ½ years after the second surgery I started a walk/jog program.  3 years later, I entered my first 5k race (first race in 5 years).  A year later I did my first Marathon and 5 months after that my first Ultra.  My first Ultra was the ICY 8-hour in Virginia February 2014. 
My MRI prior surgery with the nerve enlarged (arrow) due to disc totally compressing the nerve

Huge life change but same old issues

In February 2016, I retired from the United States Army and moved back to Colorado Springs.  During the move, I hurt my back slightly and ended up with a foot drop on the left side (could not keep my foot elevated towards my head while walking on my heels).  I was a little discouraged but I worked through this by working on purposeful movement, strengthening and not doing things that aggravated my pain and foot drop.  In 1 ½ months, I was able to run a 50k in 5 hours and 30 minutes without any increase in pain.   I did the Rim to Rim to Rim  3 weeks later with some pain afterwards and had to start slowly again.  From the end of April to end of July, I would work on focused movement and conditioning.  I had three months to go from painful running farther than 8 miles and foot slapping the ground after 8 miles to finishing a 50 miler with around 20,000 feet in elevation change.  
Rim to Rim to Rim: The awesome running crew!
Barkley Fall Classic: The look I gave when they told me I had to climb another hill after climbing for 4 miles!

It is game time

On the morning of July 30, I woke up at 3:30 am.  I worked hard to get here and wanted to do the best I could.  I always have thoughts of grandeur that I can run any course with ease but today was about making it through my first mountain ultra.   I completed Rim to Rim, Rim to Rim to Rim, and the Barkley Fall Classic but none of these were at altitude.  I arrived just after 5 am for the 5:30 am start.   I turned in my drop bag with some stuff I needed at mile 19, 23, and 29.   We lined up at 5:25 am (no wanted to be right at the start line even once we started) for the race brief and started right at 5.30 am.  The leader shot out like a cannon and would end up breaking the course record on his first ultra (you could tell he was his first ultra because he did not even know how to put his pack on and it almost fell off a mile in).  

All my best laid plans 

It was cool but humid and I began to sweat right away.  This was very unusual weather for Colorado Springs and I had to make sure I hydrated well.  I planned to fill my water at mile 11 (carrying to 500ml bottles one with UCAN electrolyte in it and the other just water) and I needed to make sure I drank all the water.    I started out in the top 10 and was with a pack of 5 runners for the first 6 miles (gained 2000 feet in 6 miles).   After that, they separated from me and I just ran an easy pace on this rolling section.  I hit the first aide station and ran right through it.  I could see the runners in front of me but as we started to climb again, I started to walk some of the steeper hills.  The next aide station was at mile 11 (3,000 feet in climb at this point) and I stopped for a water refill and a small break.  The next ½ mile would be flat and a chance to recover from the climb and then the next 5.5 would be about 3,000 feet in climb.  During this section, I would start feeling my heart racing if I pushed too hard and become light headed.   I kept my pace slow and the top two females passed me at mile 15 and mile 17.  I did pass one other male at mile 18.  I made it to the water only aide station and refilled for the two-mile climb to deer park (above 11,000 feet).  Once at Deer park, I hit the aide station and started taking in some fruit, honey and peanut butter sandwiches, and a little coke.  Then we ran 1.5 miles to the gate at Almagre (11,900 feet) and back down.  I felt good and passed another male racer at the top of Almagre.   I hit the aid station again, grabbed some fuel, and took off west for a 6.5 mile round trip.  This part was fairly flat and open.  The sun came out and it started to heat up but the humidity dropped.  My shirt dried out within 30 minutes.  This part was rolling hills with some significant elevation.   

Fireball anyone?

I completed the round trip, had one of Lara bars, and grabbed some chia bars for the 6-mile trek to the next full aid station.  I contemplated having a fireball shot just for the hell of it but my stomach was feeling good and I did not want ruin that.  This next part was downhill for the first half and slow steady uphill for the second half.  I ran this part well and felt good. I had no issues until we started going uphill again but I just walked when I needed and jogged when I could.  I reached the next aide station just below the steep climb to the top of Mount Rosa.  I filled up with water and grabbed some fruit and coke again.  This next trek would be 4 miles round trip with around 3,600 feet in elevation change.

Things became very interesting  

35 miles into the race now, I was climbing at a 20%+ grade and I started to feel lightheaded and dizzy.   I was able to plug away but slowed down significantly.   The 2-mile trek would take longer than I thought and I would have to take frequent “rest” breaks.  Once I reached the top of Mount Rosa, the view was awesome and somehow re-energized me.  I ran back down the 2 miles without issues to the aide station, refueled, and took off for the 4.5+ mile technical downhill.  This part was the quad killer but I was able to make up the time I lost climbing up Rosa.  I reached the last aide station and that was the point where I knew I would finish this race and DNF was out of my mind.  

I just have to keep moving

I sat and the last aide station for a few minutes and then power hiked up High Line Drive.  At this point, I felt good and did sub 9-minute miles down the 2.5 miles of high line drive.  However, my prolonged stop at the last aide station allowed the runner behind me to catch up and he passed me ¾ of the way day high line drive (I was passed by 4 people and I passed 5 people).  I decided that the last few hills in Bear Creek Park would be power hiked unless I felt good (I power hiked all three hills).   I jogged through the finish line and was ecstatic to finish my first Mountain Race.  I felt good after I finished and had no injuries or nagging issues.   


The biggest lessons:

I still need more altitude acclimatization and that I went out too fast.  I need to stay humble in my abilities as a runner (I want to think I am elite but  reality mediocrity = me).  I need to eat small amounts and have some sugar but not too much.  My legs and back are good; when I run with proper form and pay attention, they are not an issue. 

My two cents

The Pikes Peak 50 Miler is a great race with awesome views.  The race has altitude, elevation gains, elevation loss, and technicality built into it.  I highly recommend running it.  This race gives you a preview of Ring the Peak trail.  It is not completely open to ring Pike’s Peak but someday it will be and should be on your bucket list.  Mad Moose Events puts on spectacular races for all levels of runners and each race features trails in Colorado and Utah.  Each race is unique and far from disappointing. 

I am so stupid

My soreness and short term memory faded about a week after the race.  So in my euphoric state, I signed up for  the Dead Horse Ultra in November (another 50 miler) and the Georgia Death Race in April (68+ miles with around 40,000 feet in elevation change.   I hope to see you in November and maybe April.  Happy running!!!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Leadville Update

Leadville is less than three weeks away.

I knew the summer would fly by…Colorado summers always do.  Can’t say the same for those really hot Texas summers I endured for the first 25 years of life.  But to be fair, when your summer runs from February when the plants start blooming all the way to Thanksgiving when you might be able to throw on a hoodie…it DOES seem like forever.

Last Thursday I made the round-trip over Hope Pass with my friend Tim (who is doing Leadman) and it was a really good training day.  That’s not to say my body felt perfect, because it didn’t.  But we were out long enough for me to pick up on the ebb and flow of energy that is inevitable in an ultra-event and practice making adjustments.  I have some experience with really hot weather, altitude, and ultra-distances…but the Leadville 100 will be my first time to combine them all.  I appreciate doing new things which I have never done and of which I am unsure if I can actually do.

Near the top of Hope Pass looking south towards Winfield.

I listened to a podcast interview of Larry King yesterday as I footed it to and from the crossfit gym.  Larry was born, not Larry King, but Lawrence Harvey Zeiger.  Larry King was the radio name he was given by the general manager of a small radio station in Miami on May 1, 1957; at 22 years old and five minutes before his first ever broadcast, he changed his name.  Later he legally changed his name as he progressed in broadcasting and later television.  Listening to everything that he’s learned through the years and the thousands of people he has interviewed, he kept saying one thing.  Larry is a curious guy.  He always loved to ask questions and the always loved the anticipation of not knowing what would happen next (such as a sports game or an election).

One of the aspects of this interview that really struck me was how far a person could get in life, how much they could learn and grow, see and do, just by remaining a curious person.  I wrote about this actually, more than a year ago in my personal online blog.  I wrote about the true definition of curiosity because there is a poor connotation related to curiosity killing the cat.  But the primary definition of curiosity (noun) is, a strong desire to know or learn something which is not a negative thing at all.  The original cat-related phrase was actually, care killed the cat, and at the time care referred to worry or sorrow.  Now that is something I can wrap my head around.

In preparing for a race distance I’ve never tackled, I find the mental game to be the most interesting as the mind sometimes wanders to snapshots of potential catastrophic events (versus what is most realistic).  For example, it’s quite easy for me to imagine being hurled down the rocky and slippery backside of Hope Pass during a thunderstorm on race day.  But I think it may be helpful to discuss the benefit of reframing our challenges, because no matter the obstacle, we all benefit from looking to the future with a more empowering attitude.

In other words, in the grand scheme of Leadville and all of the other awesome challenges I get to tackle in life, I can chose to have a curious mind.  I can chose to view everything as a learning experience without giving it any kind of label.  That is freeing in some ways and really cuts down on wasted mental energy (which is a great thing!).  In light of this, worry would kill my Leadville experience while my curiosity would enhance it.  The trick is to remain curious in all things.  No matter how much we think we know, remain curious.

Twin Lakes, Colorado in the autumn.

As far as the more practical preparations for race day, clothing, footwear, pacing, and nutrition, I do have a loose plan.  Based on the loose training plan I’ve used, this loose racing plan probably comes as no surprise.  For the runner nerds who are interested in a few of the details, I’ll present those next.  For those not interested, thanks for reading this entry, I hope you have a super-awesome day!

Shoes (sandals): Bedrock Cairns, Bedrock Gabbros, Xero Z-Trail

Nutrition: Generation UCAN products, VESPA, real food, salt tabs without caffeine

Pacing/Strategy: Keep it simple.  Try to run about a 10:00min/mile to MayQueen aid station (13miles in).  The trail there isn’t super hilly but it will be super dark, crowded with runners, and technical enough that one needs to be careful.  Tim broke a toe here in his first attempt at Leadville.  Afterward there is a good climb up SugarLoaf Pass, some of which is runnable and other parts will be areas to power hike.  It’s probable that 12:00min/miles will be happening here.  Descend the 4 miles at Powerline in a controlled manner so as not to trash the quads (except the last half mile or so will probably be so steep I will need to up the leg turnover and bomb it so I don’t fall).  A lot of the course is runnable from Fish Hatchery to Twin Lakes so I will try to walk/jog and keep a 12:00min/mile as much as I can.  This should be okay unless it’s really hot or I get sick to the stomach, that can slow me down.

I want to be at Twin Lakes no later than 1:00pm so I can leave no later than 1:15pm, although earlier is better.  Tim says if I can do that I will have a good amount of time to complete the double crossing of Hope Pass, which is usually the part of the race people miss the cutoffs.  After Twin Lakes I will be most concerned with not falling or tripping (breaking a toe or worse).  I plan to pick up hiking poles at Twin Lakes to use for balance going up and possibly in some steep and technical downhill sections as well.  With Hope Pass, I just hope to run as much of the downhills as possible.

If I can get back to Twin Lakes in one piece, it’s more likely I will be able to finish.  Nothing is guaranteed though and I still have 40 miles to go and a steep, 4-mile climb up Powerline near the 75-mile mark.  That said, I should be able to walk a lot of the final 40 miles and make the more lenient cutoff times.  Melissa and Chad will be my primary pacers, although I imagine if something happens I do have backup pacers that will come and help out.  Melissa will be pacing from Winfield to either the gravel pit or the Fish Hatchery and Chad will then pick me up to go over Powerline and carry me (although not literally, that’s illegal) to the finish.

Leadville is a daunting task to even the most seasoned, elite runner.  There have been guys who have won Leadville only to come back and not be able to finish the race for some reason.  I am confident it is possible for me to finish, no question about that.  But I know it is also possible to not finish.  But I do have a plan, instead of worrying about it I have decided to be stay curious.  I do not want an energy-sucking mindset, even in the midst of the race when my energy is low and my brain is attempting to go off completely off the tracks.  That is the true challenge of Leadville, to stay in the moment and stay curious.  I look forward to it.

I have created a Facebook event for anyone wishing to come out to Leadville.  It’s a place to post questions on the logistics of the race, although by all means post questions here if you have them.  I recommend checking out the Leadville 100 website as well since it will have the course map and the most up-to-date information.  Even if you don’t watch me run, it’s well worth seeing the event.  I promise you will see at least a few runners who inspire you.  And it’s beautiful.  It really is one of the best locations in the country to hold an ultra-race.