Tuesday, July 31, 2012

2012 Speedgoat 50k Race Report

"Just gotta run controlled and there will be a lot of carnage to clean up later in the race."  I must have verbalized this at least 6 times both before and during the first quarter of Saturday's Speedgoat 50k. "I think this time I'm just going to go out really controlled and focus on picking off carnage later in the race," I manically informed a skeptical Bethany the night prior.  She put in ear plugs and rolled over, interested only in making up sleep having just taken her medical boards the day prior.  "We just gotta run controlled and there will be a lot of carnage to clean up later on," I said eagerly to Erik Storheim as we milled around before the start.  "If we run controlled early on we can pick off a lot of carnage later in the race," I breathlessly gasped to some dude next to me on the first winding ascent up Hidden Peak.

It seemed like a reasonable hypothesis: the generous cash purse, the pre-race hype, and the astonishingly deep level of international competition in the men's field all combined to ensure a blistering, testosterone-fueled pace from the start on an unrelenting course with hot temps at altitude.  The perfect recipe for a late-race charge into the top-10, or so I thought.  (1)

As I crested Hidden Peak the first time in around 1:34 and change (2), stopped to fill up my bottle, began the descent into Mineral Basin and almost immediately started feeling awful it slowly dawned on me that there was a good chance that I was soon to be that very carnage.  Indeed, this hunch appeared to be confirmed over the next 2.5 hours down Mary Ellen Gulch to Pacific Mine and back up over Baldy which were uniformly marked by woozy nausea, suffering, self-pity, and bilateral leg cramps that intensified any time I tried to force my pace past a stumbling trot.   Strangely, I must not have been alone in this stark decompensation as I don't think my position overall in the race (about 15th place) changed much at all during this difficult middle section.   Nonetheless, this private suffering was broken and at least momentarily alleviated by the surrounding beauty (the wildflowers were about as intense as I've ever seen them) as well as seeing friends out on the course: Geof and Paige, Rob, Jared, Matt with his GoPro, Pete- all of whom offered inspiration and rejuvenation.

Karl Meltzer's sadistic brain child, the Speedgoat 50k boasts almost 12,000 feet of vertical climbing on a mix of dirt service roads, singletrack, old mining trail, stream beds, and off-trail grass and talus slopes around the beautiful peaks of Snowbird ski resort.  Given the race's inclusion in the Skyrunning Series and the financial incentives offered to the top 3 racers, this year's race included a long-list of mountain and ultrarunning luminaries whose collective arrival in the Wasatch raised the mean VO2 max of the Salt Lake valley by a standard deviation.  As I stood on the start line at 6:30 am I reached over Kilian Jornet's head to high-five Bethany and wish her good luck.  That would be the last time I saw this diminutive mountain running god until I padded through the finish line almost a full hour after he had.

Time distorts recall and - as is the case with every race- a year from now the burned memory traces of pain will have softened and mellowed into a nostalgic, halcyon haze.  But as I made my troubled way along the course I marveled in astonishment at how much more this seemed to hurt than the year prior- a race in which I had also climbed the first peak fairly hard and then proceeded to go off-course for approx. 20 minutes with Joe Grant, Nick Clark, and Scott Jaime, rejoining the race having lost a discouraging 10 places or so (see 2011 race report here).

Runners often describe their off days and off races with an air of mystery and incomprehensibility: the legs just didn't have it, the running gods were simply not in my favor, etc.  While there may occasionally be a kernel of truth to this vague, pseudo-mystical mumbo-jumbo (indeed the vastly complex workings of the body and mind often outstrip our epistemological capacities) I think far more often there are several ready-at-hand reasonable explanations.  The fact is, most of us don't race all that often (relatively speaking) and are not capable of pushing anywhere near as hard in training as we are on race day: when things don't go as well as expected in a race situation there are generally good reasons, even in the absence of illness, injury, and lightning strikes.

In my case it was probably just a matter of simple fitness.  Having been sidelined with a stress fracture in my foot I've only had about 8 weeks of running and these have been made up entirely of slow-paced easy runs.  I've had decent volume and vertical (about 100,000 feet of climbing over the last month) but nothing in the way of high-intensity training.  In contrast, during the race my heart rate didn't dip below 170 until well over 2 hours into the race.  It's no surprise then that I needed about 2 hours to recuperate out on the course before I started to come around and actually feel like I could compete again, which I finally did for the last 1.5 hours of the race.  For most of the rocky descent to Pacific Mine I tried to mentally psych myself up by just thinking about Bethany who was poised to give Anna Frost a legitimate run for her money for 1st place female.  This was short-lived however as upon returning on the out-and-back portion I ran into her coming in, about 5-8 minutes behind Anna, her normally long and graceful stride now choppy and antalgic due to badly blistered feet.  She did not look like a happy camper but still managed to encourage me.  (She ended up dropping, bummer.)

As I traversed off Baldy and then dropped down again at around mile 23/24 I started feeling renewed.  It seemed like I could fill my lungs again, the cramping subsided, and my legs actually felt like running finally.  I passed Jorge Maravilla just prior to the final climb, ascended strongly, and then caught and passed Ryan Smith just before topping out on Hidden Peak 2.   Ryan and I ran a good portion of the descent together, prematurely congratulating each other on an imminent finish before he sped up and put 2 minutes on me in the last several miles.  While I had experienced no pain from my stress fracture site the whole race I noticed a familiar and concerning pang over the last few miles and (of course looking behind my shoulder first) backed off.  The foot continued to hurt for the next day or so but I ran Lookout Peak today relatively quick with no pain so I think I'm thankfully in the clear.

While this year's race had a different flavor given the intensity of competition and the density of spectators out on the course Karl still managed to create the same laid-back and friendly atmosphere.  Despite some difficult decision-making regarding prize money the event went off flawlessly- my only regret is not being able to simultaneously spectate and witness firsthand the spectacular performances of the top dogs.   A big thanks to Zoe for watching our halfling while we both ran.

(1) This positive-split strategy will likely pay huge dividends for David Rudisha in the 800m Olympic Final and may be advisable in championship cross-country 8k races where there can be large advantages to early positioning but is an inauspicious strategy for success in a mountain race that will take around 6 hours to complete.  

(2) A pace best described as blistering and testosterone-fueled - at least for this runner.

Yep, short shorts.

Bethany heading up the Pfeifferhorn



Not exactly a track workout.
And she's a dermatologist.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Reflections on Pacing and the Making and Unmaking of the World: Millwood and Hardrock 2012.

It's easy to break endurance training down into its essential features: the laboratory idolatry of VO2 max, lactate threshold, and neuromuscular efficiency.  A strata lower, the basic biochemistry of aerobic metabolism and energy utilization- wrinkled and evolutionarily ancient mitochondria, the Krebs cycle, glycogen storage and mobilization.   Training is largely about pushing and pulling on these variables in controlled fashion, the outcome being faster running with less effort, time differentials in performance, and- if all goes well- improved race performance.

But as I sat on the cold ground next to a severely depleted and continuously vomiting Jared Campbell in the middle of the night at over 13,000 feet as we ascended Handies peak during the Hardrock 100 it was clear that none of these things mattered.  Or, rather, those variables became ineluctably secondary to something much more primal.  As he would then continue to do for the next 12 hours (to impressively finish in under 30 hours in 13th place), Jared pulled himself back up from the fetal position and the pool of vomit he had been lying in with a low, almost inhuman moan and stumbled forward in a ketone body-fueled stupor, eyes half-lidded and glassy, his breath coming in short, shallow gasps.  I was reminded of Hal, the conscious supercomputer from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey whose speech, cognition, and overall functioning slowed to a tragically self-aware crawl as his processing units were removed one by one.  

Faced with this situation I did what any good pacer would do: tried to make some lame jokes, force fed him 10-30 kcal of simple carbohydrate at a time on 7 minute intervals (when he let me), offered some words of encouragement, and took video of him while he vomited for posterity.  

But let me backtrack a bit.

In the past two weeks I've been lucky enough to be a part of two epic adventures by two of the toughest dudes I know.  First, I ran and hiked about 25 miles of Erik Storheim's pioneering completion of the difficult Millwood 100.  This course- a rugged and circuitous mountain route designed by Jared Campbell- involves Millcreek, Big Cottonwood, and Little Cottonwood Canyons in the Wasatch and boasts approx. 45,000 feet of vertical climbing over 104 miles.    Erik became the first person to finish it in one push, notching an impressive 38:56 despite getting lost for a bit.  See his writeup here.

Then this past week I travelled to Silverton, Colorado to crew and pace Jared for his 8th outing in the Hardrock 100.  The pre-race environment was a scene.  The who's-who of ultrarunning were out and about with their skinny legs, UV damaged skin, product endorsement, and resting heart rates in the 30s.    There was talk.  There was prognostication.  The blogging and media airwaves were clogged and heady: "Dakota is the clear pre-race favorite but Hal has been sleeping in an altitude tent....  Can't ever underestimate the Speedgoat... If Diana so much as stops to take a gel she'll get eaten alive by a fast closing Darcy..."  It was all a bit overwhelming and I wasn't even running the damn race.  Or, as seems to be the case: "race."

I made my way to and fro, hung out with some of the Salt Lake City crew present (thanks to David Hayes and Suzanne Lewis for putting me up), did some fantastic running, ate Nutella sandwiches, drank Montanya rum, read David Foster Wallace, and generally just took in the scene with a distance of healthy skepticism.   

I watched other crews and pacers with their runners. Interestingly they seemed to be discussing a lot of details: splits, strategies, gels, gu's, chomps, bars, shoes, hydration, hats, Garmin battery life, maps, motivation, drop bags, rain gear, speed, distance, time.  Concerned at my apparent relative lack of preparation, I approached Jared that night as he sipped his second beer.  "Let's just have a good adventure in the mountains together" was his only directive.  And we had a race plan.

Despite the differing circumstances of these two endeavors, once things get rolling it seems the basic shape is the same, the experience one of radical internality: the higher-level features of your self and personhood slowly whittled away by mountains, distance, and time leaving a husk of pure intention, the simple goal to keep moving forward at all costs.  I've experienced this before first-person but it was interesting to watch it up-close.  I say up-close but yet the distance here is vast: the interiority of this state is complete and untouchable.  Your pain is whole, aching, raw and above all it is yours alone.  As Elaine Scarry observed in her brilliant work The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World: "To have pain is to have certainty, to hear about pain is to have doubt."  I hiked alongside Jared as the sun rose at mile 80 or so, now 24 hours into the race: we shared the same rocky trail, the same unique spot and time on the earth, but we were on different planets.  

And yet despite this gaping distance there is an intimacy in being invited to be here, in this strange proximity to another's suffering and vulnerability.  You can't touch the core but you can mitigate some of the surface details.  Crackers seemed to help.  

A big thanks to both these impressive dudes for letting me be a part of some amazing athletic feats while remaining such solid, humble, and kind human beings.  

Erik at Elbow Fork

Ibid, with Pete Stoughton and Matt Hart

Making our way up trail.

Me, Erik, and Matt on Gobblers Knob.  Yup, short shorts.

Erik descending off Gobblers

Erik and Matt at Upper Millcreek refueling.

Required Reading for ultrarunners.

David Hayes prior to a successful Hardrock finish.

Pre-race hydration.

Jared and Mindy, just prior to the start.

Christian Johnson, at the start.

Early morning.

Ascending out of Maggies.

Descent into Cunninghams.

David Hayes and Suzanne Lewis, the day after...

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The God Particle and Short Shorts

It looks like we might be nearing the end of the longest and most extravagant saga in the history of science as a team of physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider announced yesterday that they *may* have discovered the elusive Higgs Boson.  This particle is thought to be responsible for providing mass to the atomic nullities that make up the universe (and us) and has been referred to (with acknowledged grandiosity) as 'the God particle' for just this reason.  While this discovery stands to answer many deep and as-of-yet unanswered questions regarding the physical world it also opens the door to a number of other questions about the nature and fabric of reality: why is there something rather than nothing?  what are the basic constituents of matter?  

In a similar vein I have found myself asking some profound questions regarding the appropriate length of running shorts.  Back in the day when I was focused mainly on shorter distance racing I made it a perverse point of pride to wear the highest cut I could find, the brighter-colored the better.  A testament to how far off the mainstream I generally lie, I would fly down the main drag by the Iowa City Hawkeye football stadium on game weekends at 5:30 min/mile, shirtless and flinging sweat, in the process receiving a number of interesting and generally derogative comments from drunk, college-age passerby.  When I took up trail running a couple years ago I was very conscious about starting a new sport altogether and, as such, adopted a shuffling gait, vast knowledge of electrolyte esoterica, about 30 devices to carry water while running, and long, flowing shorts with pockets to carry crap.  It seemed to work out alright.  

Recently however I have rediscovered my old favorites- worn and stiffened from years of salt and grime accumulation but still nice and short.  Several years of cycling and then prioritization of quadricep-intensive steep trail climbing has changed my anatomy somewhat however: the predominant effect at this point is something along the lines of 10 pounds of shit in a 5 pound bag.  But it just feels so light and airy and fantastic. 

I ran up Timpanogos on Tuesday from the Timpanooke campground.  I probably finished and left American Fork Canyon about 30 minutes prior to the start of the Quail fire that has now unfortunately burned a significant area around Alpine and the sublime Box Elder Peak.  I ran pretty casually without thinking of going hard (heart rate average of 143 to the summit) but managed to top out at 1:34 and change.   I spent quite a while on the summit chillin' with some new friends (see below) and made it down to the car in 2:45 total trip time.  
Quail Fire later in the afternoon on Tuesday, as seen from the University Hospital.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Brighton Marathon

Another solid week in the books with decent volume and vertical, ending with the informal Brighton Marathon this past Sunday.  While I had run the course before this was my first time doing the actual event which is a yearly occasion thanks to the MRC crew and a number of other volunteers who flag the course and provide water en route (see gps map below).  I carpooled up to Brighton with Peter Adler and Pete Stoughton, arriving about 5 minutes before we all casually sauntered out of the parking lot and up the trail.   I ended up running the whole thing at the front with Greg Norrander which was a blast and also a nice boost to the confidence in being able to keep up with this guy.  Apart from Greg blazing up the first section of climbing from Mill D we kept the pace pretty controlled and conversational.  I think we were at 4:38 total time.  Post race/run festivities were at Jay Aldous' house at Brighton.  Thanks all for a great morning!

Bethany and David Hayes climbing up to Desolation Lake


Grandview summit.

On Grandview, stylized.

Wasatch 100 course from a distance...

Family run in Sugarhouse park right before Bethany left for Ghana.
Mamma's not coming home for a little while Ada...

Red Pine Lake.