Sunday, January 7, 2018

Newton Hills 50K

Newton Hills 50K 2017

This race was on my bucket list for quite some time. The strange thing with Ultra-races in the Dakotas is that there is only 7 that I know of, and 3 are within 8 days of each other! I decided to run my owned coined „Double“ this year. Meaning, after the prior weekend’s 12 hour race (64.17 miles), i decided to also compete in the 50K (31 miles) the following weekend. I can tell you upfront, I may switch up the distances in the future, as there is a 6 Hour option and an either 20K or 30K option. I tend to reach for the limits whenever I find a unique chance like this one.

obligatory pre race equipment pic
After the successful prior race, I considered anything today would be gravy. Mostly, I was interested in seeing how well my body had recovered since the 64 mile effort a week prior. I knew that wasn’t my best performance (short by 13 miles/21KM), but I knew I wanted to save some energy for the 50K, so it’s all relative.
It was quite cold once I reached the depths of Newton Hills State Park in Southeastern South Dakota. I was listening to a podcast about how the Secret Service works at the time. The topic isn’t relevant, only that it was non-running to keep my nerves down.

Start/Finish area incl. aid station
Parking my car, I was happy to be running the 50K. We were starting an hour before the 30K runners and had therefore dips on the parking spots. There were only 12 or so of them. The next people had to park down the road and walk about a half to ¾ of a mile to the starting line. Suckers. I would never want to walk that far!

The temps were chilling. The few people already at the Start/Finish area setting up their drop bags, were huddled around a small campfire, which in one way is nice of the race directors, Karen and Nancy, but also quite punishing later on as we had to run best that warm heavenly shelter and keep going back into the cold dark woods. Ultra’s are sadistic beasts. Only us maniacs consider them fun.

prime drop bag spot
I layed down my four pre-prepped bottles of Arizona Sweet Tea (those $0.99 ones you find in every gas station). Each had the bottle carrier pouches filled with Endurance Tap Maple Syrup (organic endurance gels). This way I could be in and out of the aid station in literally under 2 seconds! No reason to spend extra time out there!

The frosted grass tips cracked ever so slightly under our shoes as we approached the starting line. Nervous jokes were made and everyone got ready to start their watches. Looking around, I saw concentrated faces and steam rising from their heads and their breath was visible in the collective glow of everyone’s headlights. It was 6:01am. 17 degrees Fahrenheit (-9 Celsius). The signal was given and off we went. Cold air filling our lungs on the first big strides that loosened our legs as we commenced our journey for the day.

We had a couple hundred yards on an open grass field before the route went into single track heaven. That was enough to allow the fast guys upfront to gap the field and get going and us other runners to get in a forced slow rhythm behind, which allowed us to conserve some energy. This first loop turned out to be my least favorite, despite feeling physically the best this early on. We were so tight together, that I couldn’t see anything but the feet from the runner right in front of me. Picture this: a foot of dirt single track, ever changing in direction and random roots and rocks thrown in for fun.
Despite my awesome 2000 lumens from Gears Spheres, I couldn’t shine my light through the guy in front of me and so I stumbled quite often as I had to react to things tripping me the distance of a Subway footlong away! Add into this that after the front pack (3-5 guys) my chaser group took a wrong turn (the directors clearly said „always turn right!“, so for some reason I told the guy in front of me: „Go right here!“.

Served me well. 

I made up for my gaff by once again convincing everyone else to follow my direction, because I recognized the little wooden bridge crossing. „We just did this 10 minutes ago! We need to turn around!“ We picked up a handful of other runners who were following our headlamps and we were back on course shortly after.

That incident helped taking the self-imposed pressure out of the race. Now, I also had another excuse for not doing well today! This was now a 51K!

The rest of the first loop was uneventful. I recognized most of the trail even in the dark, as I had purposefully come down here a couple of times to run this park without pressure and study the course. I knew the big climbs coming up (Big considering the local natural features (300 feet/ 100 meters) and was looking forward to getting into a rhythm to be repeated five times total today.

I noticed the final half to quarter mile was all on an extreme downhill, which I loved! I happen to be crazy (or inexperienced enough with falls) that I go balls out! It’s no longer running, but control falling. I tend to extend my arms into an „airplane“ position in that situation to keep my balance, but I will run those section at least 3-4 times faster than most other runners. Take what the trail gives you!

Team Frost Beard!
During the second loop my new running buddy Chance joined me (or did I join him? I don’t recall the exact logistics to be honest). It was a nice change of pace (not literally, as we kept going pretty strong, but were conversing now to make the time pass). He had run in college and now attempted his first Ultra. In my „wise‘ 4 years of doing this madness, I was able to answer a bunch of this „whippersnapper’s“ questions (he’s like 5 years younger than me J ).

My aid station strategy paid off big time. Each lap I threw my empty bottle from a few feet away and picked up a new one without barely breaking my stride. Chance and other runners took a few moments to gather their items and thus I was able to start breaking away. He is such a strong runner though that even my aid station advantage only lasted for a few minutes and he cruised right up to me again.

After two loops we ditched our headlamps as we could now make out the trail in the immersing sunrise and welcomed the warming sunshine to hopefully begin to melt our already fully established frost beards!

all of us do. all of us.
Before the third loop was over, I slightly slowed down and Chance kept going strong. I was hoping for him to make the podium. A success in his first ultra would add another maniac to our small community long term!

The fourth go around was a mental and physical challenge. I couldn’t push too hard if I wanted to finish strong. My calf muscles threatened to lock up on the long steep uphills and their twitching took all of my attention so that i forgot to pick up my feet and on a few occasions I nearly ate some nice trail dirt. The stumbling helped me remember something that I learned a couple of years back. Usually when I run low on calories, I stop picking up my feet and generally don’t watch where I’m going very well. I downed the rest of my sweet tea with another Endurance Tap Gel and played the patience game until that sugar would hit my blood stream and help me refocus. I was elated when I was on the last downhill, knowing that I would only have to do this ordeal one more time.

end of final downhill section

However, the fifth and final loop was no ordeal at all. Even though it turned out to be my slowest loop of the day, I felt quite fast. The 20K and 30K runners were mostly finished so that I had plenty of room to run and any runner in my sight was a competitor (even though a few were being lapped, they still seemingly pulled me towards them so that the last few miles went by in a blurr. I found myself once again within about a mile of the finish and knew I’d be getting in under 5 hours, which was my main goal for the day. Not close to PR levels, but this challenging course was here for me to learn. I made up a spot or two and within a quarter mile of the finish flew by yet another runner on that kamikaze downhill (at least the way I run it).

At the end, I came in 7th overall at 4:52h. The winner ran an insane 4:03h for a new course record. These young college kids!

The sweatsoaked shirt had become a detriment quickly and I changed in my nearby parked car. Huddling up at the camp fire restored some energy as I cooled off rapidly after finishing. To my surprise Chance was turning the final corner and went by crossing the finish line. Turned out that I passed him when we went by the aid station between loops 4 and 5. He told me later he bonked hard. If he gets his nutrition right, he’ll win some of these in the future (Keep it up!)

aid station by day
The entire race was a great organized event (nice work Karen and Nancy!) and every runner I spoke to attested to the fun they had despite the freezing temps. I’ll definitely come back again, but now it’s time to rest a bit. My legs have carried me far between those 8 days and I was contemplating another „short“ little marathon the following week in Utah.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

12 Hour Blood Run at Good Earth Farm

This race has been on my radar for 3 years. The prerequisite to get in used to be that you had to know someone who had partaken before. I love these type of races that have quirky conditions. It adds to the mystique and difficulty. The runner I knew was Ed, who holds the course record (CR) of 67 miles (108KM), which is a beast of a performance. He also provided me with his Bare Bear Butter Anti-Chafing cream. If you don’t know what that is, you haven’t run for hours on end. You’re nether regions will appreciate it!
My trusty Altras with my daughter's and niece's initials

I love timed events. No chance to DNF (Did Not Finish) and you can truly zone out and purely focus on putting one foot in front of the other. The course was set up to be a 3-point-something mile loop, but imagine a crooked figure 8.
The green dot indicates the Start/Finish line
Meaning, you’d run by the intersection twice per loop. That was the Start/Finish line, as well as the single aid station on the course. You really didn’t need to carry anything with you as you would pass the barn (aid station) every 1.5 miles or so.

My alarm pissed me off at 3:15am, as that is an ungodly time to rise and go punish your body, but I was nevertheless excited for my impending adventure. I did snooze it to the limit and left knowing that when I get there, I’d only have 10 minutes to stretch and warm up (haha! An ultra is long enough that you don’t need that nonsense).

Our small group set off at 6am sharp crossing a water hose sprawled across the yard which doubled as Start/Finish line. By the way, the race was held at the organic farm Good Earth (hence the name; the Blood Run is a local landscape feature).

A truck guided us on the first loop so that we wouldn’t get lost in the middle of nowhere in South Dakota. Also, their little black dog Sydney joined us and led the way. I was wondering if she should need a Bib, but she would’ve been disqualified as she kept cutting the course. What a bi%&$.
"Earned. Not Given."
It took a couple of loops to get into a rhythm and I had to remind myself to slow down as this would be a long day out. My trusty Spheres Gears headlamp lid the way (2000 lumens and great battery life) and I studied each turn to make sure I run the tangents to minize the distance per loop. A foot here or there does add up over 12 hours!

After the sun came up, I came to a crucial decision. I had started the race in my Pearl Izumi Trail Shoes, which I won a year ago at the Lean Horse 100. During these long races, it is important for me to have some space in my shoes without them slipping. I developed blisters early on and knew this was going to be a real threat to my race if not mitigated. Thinking ahead, I brought a pair of my „solemates“ Altra’s! The extended toebox gave my toes the breathing room they needed and I didn’t have to worry about my feet for the rest of the day.

7 Hour mark
The sun came up and I could truly appreciate the beauty of this farm we were running on. A serene, calm  and inspiring place to just let your mind wander. Loop after loop, another runner (Justin) and I circled the farm together. It was fun to have some company during such a long event. I slowed down a bit to take inventory of my body and let Justin go. Watching him closely, my competive spirit kicked in a few loops later when I saw him leaving the aid station into the opposite direction as me. He was a half lap ahead.

Trucking on, I fueled myself with Endurance Tap maple syrup gels and Arizona Sweet Tea (those that have been $0.99 since the ’70s! Sydney joined me here and there for a partial loop before going with another runner. At times I was glad she left, because she did try to „herd“ me and I didn’t appreciate the tripping. I tried telling her that I knew the way, but maybe my accent was too much for her to understand. Who knows?!

All day I was listening to podcasts, which did two things for me: Help me zone out AND help me catch up on hours of content that I hadn’t gotten to the last few weeks. Somewere between „Stuff You Should Know“ and „Myths and Legends“ I passed Justin as he was refueling at the aid station. We were somewhere in the later part of the first half. So only 5 hours in maybe.

The wind picked up and I didn’t mind. We were mostly sheltered by tall corn or running with the wind. The only place where the wind hit me head-on offered me a great excuse to take a 20s walk on every loop. I used those to text with my family. My wife and daughter were going to come towards the end of the race to cheer me on and I loved their encouragement throughout.

Many hours became a haze and we were somewhere between hour 9 and 10 (Don’t worry, it sounds crazy to me too when I read it out loud) when I saw my in-laws car cruising by on the highway and I waved them down from afar and pointed them in the right direction. The place was easy to miss. On  the next loop I got some more encouragement from my regular crew-chief and father-in-law Bill. This type of race must’ve been different for him. He usually drives from aid station to aid station and preps the stuff I may need (guessing what a disillioned runner needs after hours of racing is an art in itself!). Today, he just needed to plop down in a chair and tell me to keep moving every 1.5 miles or so.

Seeing my wife and daughter was special too, even though it added a certain kind of pressure. Whenever I tell my 3-year old that I’m running a race she’s expecting a trophy and she won’t let up about it either! She’s actually claimed several of mine, since she keeps beating me during our „driveway sprints“ J.

I started calculating toward the last couple loops of the race. What pace would I need to run to get the course record? It seemed doable, but I also wanted to run well on the following weekend during the challenging Newton Hills 50K Ultra. At least that’s my excuse. Truth be told, Ed set the bar nicely at 67 miles (108KM).

On the last couple of loops
During the last hour I invited my wife to join me and walked a couple of loops together. She absolutely loved the farm and tried talking me into farming (which i know nothing about). The place was truly inspiring.

Coming into the aid station with maybe 12 minutes to spare, I went on the „short route“. It was a 0.15 mile (250 meters) out and back on the farm’s driveway. After doing those a couple of times, my daughter joined first at my hand and then as time expired she was on my shoulders as I was running towards the all-so-important garden hose J.

I was happy to finish first with 64.17 miles to my name, and a new motivation to come back next year to take down Ed’s record.

This jar was filled with 1 marble per
loop to keep track
Overall, I can’t recommend this event enough. You can run either the 6 Hour or 12 hour version and set a personal best in distance! The aid stations are fully stocked, the encouragement is never ending and the family-event feeling truly makes it special! Thanks to Nancy and Jeff for hosting us on their farm and excellent race organization/management. Thanks to Kyle Kranz for an excellent preparation with all the difficulties I’ve had since Lean Horse. Thanks also to Karen, Jeff and Alissa for continued cheering and of course to Sandra and Bill (in-laws), my wife Christina for joining for me for a couple of loops, and my little sunshine Leiana for finishing the race with me! (She did claim the trophy, since she ran „faster“ than me).  I can’t wait ’til she grows up and really naps trophies right from me J.
The garden hose was the Start/Finish line