Saturday, August 30, 2014

Mississippi Marathon (6/50)

Chewalla Lake in the Holly Springs National Forest

Once or twice a year, I get to go to Memphis, TN for work. Since I have decided to run a marathon in all 50 states, I haven’t gone down into the south yet (even though Texas is down south, I don’t feel it’s part of the “South”).

I could’ve run right in Tennessee, as that would make the most sense, since my business was there. However, since I was travelling alone on this trip, I planned ahead. I figure next time down here I will have my colleagues join me so that I won’t be able to drive 30min south into Mississippi.  Next time, I will be stuck in Tennessee, and then I might as well run there.

Holly Spring National Forest looked promising and it is a very large area, but I picked a fairly close laying Chewalla Lake region to run in. I had read online about the trails around there and the ATV dirt roads, so I figured I could spend a few hours playing in the area.

Since only roughly 3 weeks had passed since my 50 mile race, I planned on taking it very easy on this marathon and not attempt a 3-4 hour run, but really take my time to ensure optimum recovery overall, since I am planning my next 50 miler in October and don’t want any neuromuscular injury in the time leading up to that race.

The first thing I had noticed getting of the plane just 60 minutes prior was the insane humidity and heat (95F). In South Dakota, we somewhat skipped that sort of summer this year. Usually we get several days above 100F, but this year has been extremely mild. Therefore I had to stop numerous times just to catch my breath, even though I was going slower than at my recent 50 mile race (80Km).

After running outside of the picnic/swimming park area I came across the Chewalla Dam (reminds me of this one: “Two fish swim into a wall, says the one to the other :Dam(n)!) J) from which I could enjoy a very nice view of the area before going deep into the Holly Spring National Forest. I stumbled around the swampy area and truly felt like I was in a movie (at least from what I’ve seen of the south in movies). A huge moth attacked me, but I think I scared it off by my high pitch scream that I learned from my daughter Leiana. Truly a life saver.

Speaking (more like writing) of my beautiful daughter, I got to FaceTime with her and my wife during this early stage of my run. I decided to walk for about a 1.5 mile with them on my screen. I am truly grateful for the technology nowadays. I can see them live face-to-face while running in a National Forest in Mississippi while they are changing diapers in South Dakota. Leiana even spoke to me and told me about her day. My fault for not knowing baby language at this point, but I vow to try to learn more in the coming weeks. My wife Christina was my rock during this time, as this was my first night away from home since Leiana was born and she insisted that she had everything under control.  She actually urged me to get off the phone, finish my run and call her later.

The Trail started to become a road less travelled. Literally. It was an ATV road, but it hadn’t been mowed all year and didn’t show any sign of usage. It was beautiful . Crickets chirping left and right and deer ever so often getting startled by my stomping.  Once I even hurdled one of the many local non-venomous snakes that crittered around the trail. I think it was dead , but I wouldn't know who was more afraid of whom.

The dirt ATV road gave me a nice trail rash as I continuously got brushed by the foliage along the trail for the ensuing miles. My mind at this point was thinking very stereotypical for the south (mostly based on movies). I was expecting to see a moonshine distillery around every corner with some guy in overalls yelling at me to get away.

I explored the surrounding trails a bit and even scrambled around the ever rolling hills of the surrounding area that were without trails. I felt comfortable knowing where the lake was and based on the sun could orientate myself very well. As it started turning dark, I called my wife once more and talked with her and listened to Leiana telling me about her day. Again I’m sorry for not understanding anything beyond that I am the best dad in the world.

The sun had gone down and I dropped my backpack and switched to a single water bottle, as I planned to sprint the route I had just taking once more. Since I was comfortable knowing how far it was and how to get back to my rental car, even as the daylight diminished, I went on my way and guided my route by flashlight. This will also help me in my long-term goal to race throughout the nighttime.  The temperature had relented and the humidity had gone down so that I could easily crank out a 9 mile run in 1:12h, which was my hardest effort of the day. The area was going to close by 10pm and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and was starting to seriously feel low on energy as the 19.2 miles took their toll on me and I had only lived on a handful of gels at this time. Therefore I decided I’d take a small break and drive back to the hotel (30min), get a subway sandwich and finish on the hotel treadmill. It felt more like a dreadmill. Even though I ran slower than earlier before, I hated it as I only had myself to stare at after being spoiled by the beautiful Mississippi forest and swamp. I listened to a podcast and the remaining 7 miles went by uneventfully. Not my most favorite way to finish an effort, but probably the most reasonable/safe way.

 Anyways, Mississippi is done. 6 states down, only 44 to go J.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Badlands 50 miler / North Dakota (5/50)

Here I sit...Nervously watching the weather updates for Saturday to see if we had indeed Thunderstorms to make this race more epic/potentially cancelled. Really.. Anything you do, if you do it in the rain, it makes it 67% more epic. I researched it. Trust me.

Wednesday morning came with an epiphany. As Medora, ND is in the Mountain time zone, the race would start at 7:30am on my internal clock and not at 6:30am. 60 extra minutes, divided by 9, would give me roughly 6 more times I can hit "Snooze"! That night, I made my final "personal" preparations: cutting my toenails so that I would not end up losing any this time around. (post-race note: I have 4 bruised toenails that I will lose :( )

The alarm rang at 4:45am and I got up to stretch and loosen up. I drew the elevation profile of the race on my lower left arm, so that I could tell during the race when a big climb was coming up.

The storm ended up never happening, so I couldn't attach the "epic" label according to the weather. It did start out foggy which made the racing area look pretty monumental and I was exciting to get started. The fogginess would add to the overall humidity which made my shoes and socks extremely wet, which would later on spell some trouble in regards to major blisters on both heels. Christina was super supportive and I was excited to get started. The race director actually arrived late, but we had found our way anyway and the starting scene of this ultramarathon was as relaxing as it can be. He warned us of mountain lions and rattle snakes, but I only saw one dead rattler on the side of the road.

 The race director said "Go" and people actually began shuffling their feet. It did take me 300 feet to overtake everybody who was in the mood of taking pictures instead of running (12 minute/mile pace :)).

The beginning started with a crowd separated by a 300 foot incline in the first half mile of the race. Everyone was off casually and by the top I was in second place of all runners, with the only guy ahead of me being a college cross country runner in the 50 KM who would surely outpace me. As far as I was concerned, I was in 1st place for the 50 mile race and was looking at my heart and GPS monitor to monitor my progress. I started hiking hard and descending speedy to build a 3 minute lead by mile 8, which was the first turn around point. I told the attending aid station captain that I was going out too fast as my heart rate was in the 170s and that was not sustainable for 50 miles. As this was a turn around I could calculate my lead to be around 6 minutes a little after that first major turn around, by mile 9-10. It was fun sprinting 0.5 miles at sub 6 min/mile pace, but I knew this was going to haunt me later. But you never pass up a chance to feel running fast.

At the point I reached the half-marathon aid station, I had slowed as my wet shoes and socks were intimidating me. As it was foggy and very humid I was worried about my feet being drenched in moisture. I took off my singlet and heart rate monitor, as it was indicating to me that I was going too fast (I was!).  The second place 50 miler caught up to me at this aid station and as he was running with a backpack he didn't need to stop to refill his water, as he had plenty in his backpack. He easily gained 2-3 minutes on me here. As the race didn't offer any far reaching straight views I didn't see him when I left the aid station.

I reached the ridge from which you can see the start/finish area, but sadly the first place 50 miler had already passed me on his way out on the second loop. So I knew, I was at least a little over a mile behind him. That was an impressive move by him and it did intimidate me as he passed me by mile 13 and looked strong as in to extending his lead further.

I saw him when I reached mile 17 and he already took an impressive 1 mile (1 mile past the turn around) lead on me as he had already climbed the hill I was about to descend on. I knew I wasn't going to see him for awhile. It barely took me 20 seconds to turn around after I refueled on water on drank some coke. After completing the ascend, I saw the third place runner about 1.2 miles out and figured I had a comfortable 21 minutes lead over him. I tried to stay as afresh as I could but by the time of the turn around (mile 24) I had already a 34 minute gap to the leader.

My legs starting complaining to me for running the downhills and threatened me to quit at any given point. I had never run this much downhill before so aggressively and I was just about to embark on this second half of the course.

One of the race officials informed me that the 50km  (31mile) leader had finished in an incredible 4:44h, I had the choice to drop down and take 2nd place and be done for the day when I arrived at the Start/Finish area at mile 32. Some twisted thought in my head told me that I would be quitting early on my 50 mile plans that day I turned around once more at the 32mile mark and went uphill on this ridiculous incline to begin the course anew. 

I had finished the 50km in 6:03, which was well ahead of the eventual second place 50km runner, but I had signed up for the 50 miler and I was going to finish it no matter what. No excuses. No easy way out. Trust me, I was tempted. The blisters on both of my feet had grown astronomical and I felt them on every ascend as they rubbed against the back of my shoes. Christina had dry shoes and socks ready for me at the next aid station, but I was worried what would happen if I peeled of the layers and possibly break the skin on my feet. It wasn't "that far" to the finish (15 more miles) Next time, I will switch shoes/socks earlier.

The last of three loops was the most painful. By the time I had only 13 miles to cover (37 miles in), my uphill legs and straight-away legs had given out. I could run downhills fast still, but I was content keeping off 3rd place and finishing second in my second 50 miler.

I had reached a point where I met the 3rd place runner and he told me that mere 20 minutes earlier he had seen the leader walking and cramping. Oh happy day. I was so exhausted, that I wasn't sure whether to be excited about this or if I should be hating the fact that I should toe the line for running and cramping for another 2400 feet of elevation change. I bit my tongue and eventually reached the last aid station with 3.2 miles to go (mile 46). I was told I am behind about 10 minutes and I started going all out. At this point I had calculated a 62 minute lead over 3rd place that I felt comfortable that I could run fast until I cramped and still walk it in in 2nd place if  I had to.

I power hiked the uphills, sprinted the downhills and "ran" (fast shuffled) the straight aways. I had a new found sense of competition and time was flying by. I got to the point on top of the ridge line from which you can see the finish area and heard the crowd cheering.

 In my position, I wasn't sure if it was for me, or if possibly, they saw the leader turn somewhere close ahead of me. That meant for me that i needed to sprint. All out. Balls to the wall. I dumped my remaining water (less weight), tucked the bottles into my waist band behind me and plummeted down the ~350 foot descend of the last quarter mile. It was steep. I was going fast. At one point I thought my sore legs would buckle and I would miss the turn on the switchback and go "off-road", but I caught myself. I saw the leader by the finish area and knew I was going to be second. Finally the adrenaline rush hit me and I was enjoying a beautiful runner's high as I descended towards the trailhead. In a sportsmanlike gesture, the winner, Carlos, opened the trail gate for me, so that i didn't have to break my stride and I could finish in full sprint through the finish line. 10 hours and 3 minutes. The longest I have ever run. He had actually beat me by about 30 minutes, which only proves that you can never trust the aid station personnel on the times you are ahead/behind someone.

Running these distances are fun. Fun you wonder? How can this be fun? Ask anyone at Disneyland waiting for 90 minutes to get their crotch buckled tight by a pimply teenager to then go up and down a roller-coaster on a spine-altering and chiropractor-needing 3 minute ride. They say they have fun. Summa summarum, we are all a little nuts. It keeps our regular lives in balance.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Return to racing


272 days. That's the amount of days since I toed the starting line of a race. My last race was the SD Trail Running Championship (SDTRC) in November 2013. After that race I somewhat shut down to rehab my ever-annoying Achilles tendon. Following are the total mileages for the subsequent three months:
20 in Dec, 42 in Jan, 28 in Feb.

My impression was that my leg needed rest above all and thus used the cold weather and icy road conditions as a perfect excuse to stay inside. I worked on stretches, but didn't take the rehab further than that. After increasing my mileage again to 90+ miles in March, I immediately felt the Achilles acting up again and followed in April and May with ~60mi months.
I felt as if nothing was changing and finally decided to have a MRI on my leg. I was expecting to see some micro-tears that would result in some prescribed rehab training and prepared to shut down the racing season before entering the first race.
The result was negative. It showed a mild amount of muscle tightness and thus explained that the knots in my calf muscles strain the Achilles tendon and result in a popping sensation after strenuous (fast/long) runs.
So basically I am an idiot. Had I stretched, warmed up, cooled down properly, I could have avoided this whole scenario that has been bugging me for over 18 months now.
I tried my new routine of stretching, foam rolling and massaging the leg regularly while increasing my mileage again to 90+, but at much slower pace than what I did in 2013. It seemed to work.


9 days. That's the amount of days until my next race. Yesterday I signed up for the Badlands 50mile (80KM) Ultra-Marathon in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, ND. A month ago I had planned on signing up for this race already, but had many concerns about the shape I was in and the daunting task of 50 miles with 10,500' (3.2km) elevation change in the middle of the summer in the arid, windy and hot Badlands of North Dakota.
I knew that I can't sign up for a race like this without knowing whether I will enjoy doing it. I know I can finish it, as a glorified hike can get me in under the cut-off, but that's not the goal. As my wife and daughter are travelling with me, I want to make sure it will be worth mine and their time.

Confidence boosters for this race:
I just finished my second highest mileage month ever: 150miles
Comparing mileage of June/July of 2013 to 2014: 230 to 253. In addition I also biked for 60 miles and swam 1.5 miles as cross training to relieve stress from my legs.
Dropped 9 lbs since June 1 and begin to resemble racing weight.
Did heat specific runs in heat exceeding 90F (32C).
When I ran the SDTRC in November it had 13,800' (4.2km) elevation change over 10 miles, while the Badlands 50 "only" has 10,500' (3.2km) over 50 miles. At the SDTRC, I averaged my goal race pace for the 50 miler, but with much steeper climbing.
At this point I have been nerding out on the elevation profile of the race and am trying to plan when I will eat, drink, make a move if battling for position etc.

Studying the race profile

At the Lean Horse 50 miler last year, I came in at 9:04h. Had I not detoured on the course, it'd been under 9 and planning my hydration and cooling much better this time around, I hope to shave off one additional hour. The two unknown factors to me will be the impact of wind and running single track trail that could snake on the descents and not allow to make up time.  (at least I am already preparing possible excuses!)
I have a couple more training runs this week before I go into taper mode next week in preparation for the race.

I am excited. I am ready. Let's do this!