Friday, September 16, 2016

Lean Horse 100

I was nervous to run 100 miles. Such a daunting task. I have run 76.9 miles as my furthest to date and I knew I could handle the distance, but I wasn't sure under what conditions. I chose an "easy" 100 miler for my first one to eliminate as many variables as possible. This one only climbed 5,887 feet during the length of the course and had an easy terrain of crushed limestone throughout. No rocks or roots to trip over. I could simply focus on running. This had been my goal for the last 3 years and I prepared meticulously for it and was super excited that my daughter, wife, sister-in-law and their parents were going to support me on site.

Signing up for the race
I had carefully laid out everything I would need the night before (well, really I laid it out about 5 times just to be sure and woke up twice to check a couple of things as I dreamt that I forgot something). Had a great night sleep though (considering all anxiety) .Woke up by 4:45am, was downstairs with stomach full of breakfast and waiting for Bill to pick me up at 5:15am. Headed to the track, sipping on some coffee, mentally going through the race...

After a little issue finding some water, I was able to line up at the start and was waiting for the last few minutes to tick off the clock before we could get going. People were giddy around me and I tried to stay calm. I just wanted to start running.

Starting too fast. Telling myself to hold back.
I saw several people starting out quite fast and I figured that I would see them later on again. I held true to one of my racing mottos:” If they are truly that fast, I have no business running with them. If they are not that fast, I’ll see them later”. Furthermore, I remembered a big thing I learned right before my first ever Ultra: “Take the inside lane!” (the race started on the Custer High School track. Running on lane 1 ensures the shortest possible distance. I kept that mindset throughout the day, as I signed up for 100 miles (160km) and not 101. Only crazy people would run that far. The first few miles were amongst the most difficult. Not in the way of being fatigued or mentally drained, but it felt awful forcing myself to slow down constantly when I felt so good! I knew I had to, because otherwise I may not see the end of the race, but it still is a funky feeling.

All the aid stations were planned out for my crew and pacer so that they would know what pace I expected to run and I told them what I would like to have at each aid station that they would be at. This would help eliminate time spent at aid stations. Spending just 3 minutes at each of the 20 aid stations would result in a full hour of no running time.
Race Start

Surprisingly, I found myself running alone starting at mile 2! A lot of runners (50K, 50mile and a few 100mile) were ahead of me and plenty behind. Couldn’t see anyone at that point though and I thought that it was going to be a long day. Throughout the next few miles the first couple of gels went down smoothly. Trying not to think about the next 30 or so that I will consume during the day. Unlike other, more experienced runners, I haven’t mastered the art of eating real food during a race yet and relied solely on gels and fluids for my calories. Roughly 30 gels (3300 calories) and however many gallons one can fit of sugary water, fueled me through the day.

I brought along two identical pairs of shoes (Altra Instincts) that I trained with for a combined 800 miles. I wanted shoes that were broken in and comfortable. The second pair was with my crew in case my other shoes got wet for any reason. The shoes were so comfortable, that I hadn’t loosened or tied the laces for the last 2-3 months. They fit like a glove.

Cruising through the early stages of the race, I was very surprised when mile 20 rolled around and I saw my crew-chief Bill for the first time. He had my bottles ready to go and extra gels and I spent all of 3 seconds in the aid station. I had planned on 2 minutes initially, but was able to put that extra time into the bank! Bill has crewed for me now at multiple ultras and knows exactly what I need when I run in. It’s extremely encouraging to have that level of support during a race as demanding as this.

Out of sight of the aid station, I reached down my pants and grabbed tightly (shorts that is, nothing „attached“) and RIP! Oh what a relief. Tore the inseam. It just hadn’t felt right until now. Blood flow is restored and I am beyond happy J.

Next up on the course, I would encounter several tunnels, which I had never seen in person before, but weren’t difficult, as long as they weren’t so crazy dark! I had to slow to an almost walk as I had no idea what condition the ground was in. Didn’t want to turn an ankle at that point. By the second tunnel I realized that taken off your sun glasses incredibly increases your light-perception! Who would’ve thunk? Anyways, that problem was now solved too and I could run through the tunnels.

Efficient Aid Station
Coming into my favorite aid station of the day, Mystic, I initially didn’t see Bill so sprinted over to the tent and asked for a bottle of water and a bottle of Gatorade. While stuffing my arm sleeves with ice, I noticed a little anxious squeaking to my left and looked down to see my excited daughter Leiana jumping up and down yelling: “Papa!” I was so excited to see her and my race mode switched off for a moment. I hugged her and gave a kiss and saw the rest of the family. It didn’t feel great to seemingly abandon them right away again, but if I was done sooner with the race, I could hang out with them sooner again. 

Right out of the aid station I passed another runner who looked like he was in bad shape. It was only mile 31-32 and I thought that my strategy to run my own conservative pace at the beginning paid off. During the next stretch I passed Adam, a runner who also attended SDSU during the time I did and he was having some problems on the side of the trail. Passing him, I was more concerned with my own issues that were arising in the form of tight IT-Bands. The stretch I have been doing for years looks like a one-legged squat, with one leg resting on the other. It takes some time, but makes the ITBs feels much looser afterwards. Troubling enough though, I had to repeat that stretch through almost the entire race. I likely lost as much time on the stretches as I gained by running through aid stations. Running with Adam into next aid station, we could see Tim Fryer on our heels, just a hundred feet behind. I looked at my pace chart and told Adam that I was 23 seconds of my anticipated time at this point. Felt good to be hitting your targets!

One of the truest things I’ve learned about Ultras came true two-fold. “If you’re feeling great or if you’re feeling horrible. Just wait a few minutes, it’ll pass.”

My great feeling of hitting my splits vanished over the next few miles. I bonked a little while running with Tim from the Rochford aid station (37.4mi) to Nahant (43.5mi). It mentally threw me off to see him and Adam catch me at Rochford and I likely went a little too fast in order to stick with Tim during that time. It also turned to the warmest temps of the day and so a couple of different things combined. I decided to let Tim go after Nahant and re-assess my body and mind. I got my strength back when I saw, on a long uphill, Tim passing another runner. I set my goal to chase that other runner. During this time, my GPS died on me and I lost my ability to run by exact pace. Perhaps this saved my race, as I now ran truly by feeling. I kept an ever increasing uphill-shuffle-pace and put my head down to try to catch up to him. It likely took 30 minutes or so, but it felt like 4 or 5. He was now walking and I caught up and encouraged him to run with me.  
I could use a few minutes of talking to pass another mile or two before the turnaround. By my assumption, he was in a severe bonk at the time and I hoped to get him out of it by talking. The aid station was getting closer and he picked up the pace a bit. Coming towards us was another runner, but it was only a relay runner who told us that we were in 3rd and 4th place. Meaning Tim was ahead of us and I assumed, Eric Clifton, an Ultra running legend, was in the lead. However, we were so close to the aid station at mile 49.3 that I was confused that they hadn’t come towards us yet. That meant that I was close to the lead. This was exhilarating. I knew Adam was on my heels, so I slightly increased my pace, but immediately dropped the other runner and within 5 minutes was up to Tim who was walking into the aid station. The half way point was a key aspect of my race planning. The turnaround was at 50 miles. My goal was to run my own pace until about mile 50. Then I would count the runners in front of me as they would run towards me. Plus, the 50K and 50 mile racers had already turned earlier, so I knew that every runner that I saw was going to be in my race. For the few relay teams, I looked at their bib numbers to see if it was relay or 100mi racer. I thought that the top 5 were very close together. He walked to get his fuel/nutrition from his team. I shouted my requests to my crew and ran past the aid station. I would be back in 1.4 miles and was fine with my water supply. This would help put a little distance on Tim. On the approach to the turnaround I saw the leader, Eric, who holds multiple course records nationally and ran for the national team as well. He looked as if he was going through a bonk as well. The temperatures were getting to a lot of participants at this point and nearly half of all runners ended up not finishing the race. After the turn around (8:25h elapsed), I got back to the aid station and saw him gingerly sitting down and knew I was in the lead. That was an exhilarating feeling! I never had a runner’s high in the middle of a race (usually while approaching the finish line). During this adrenaline rush of taking the lead I decided to push the pace a little on the next 12 miles of pure downhill.
12 miles of downhill after the turnaround!
Originally I didn’t want to “race” until the 100K mark, but this opportunity could not be squandered. My goal was to put enough distance behind me so that I could not be seen during the long straightaways along the course. (As you know, seeing the next runner up motivates you to chase them. Not seeing them might have you settle into a comfortable rhythm).
The next 12 miles or so went by in a blur. I kept pushing and pushing without trying to blow up. Habitually stepping on that fine line of best effort and self-destruction. Never did cross that line and was constantly encouraged by the other runners that I was now running towards. They clapped and cheered and it was a great motivator to keep going. I still had to stop every mile or so to stretch, but only for maintenance at this time. I was not at risk that my legs would lock up, but wanted to keep them refreshed as I still had around 40 miles to go.
Bill was on point with all of his aid station prep and got me in and out as fast as humanly possible. Kyle had joined the crew at mile 62 and gave me feedback on how I was doing. He knows my running better than anyone and I trust his opinion. When he said I looked good, I knew I was in good shape. I was so pumped that after taking a big swig of ice-tea, I downed the rest over my head to cool off. I guess at that point it only mattered to cool off and not so much what I used to accomplish that.
True. See previous picture :)
I kept on rolling. The next uphill was immensely important for me. If I can keep an even effort here, I could decide the race. I knew my lead was increasing to about 15 minutes as I my crew was timing the runners behind me, but my lead could be gone with one bad decision. I set tiny incremental goals and ran from “here to the next tree, or to the next bridge, before setting my sights on the next tiny target ahead”. The actual pace at this point was irrelevant. I needed to be the fastest tortoise at this point. I was still hitting every aid station within 2-3 minutes of my planned time. My lead grew to roughly 20 minutes when I picked up Kyle at mile 80.  He would pace me the rest of the way. After a quick check that our head lamps were working, I told him:” Take me home!”

We chatted about all kinds of things and I didn’t notice that we were going up the second to last hill of the day. Sadly though, after I did finally realize it, I convinced myself to walk. I had earned it, I thought. Imagine the convincing nature of your brain at 4am in the morning when the alarm goes off. I always stay in bed. This was me “staying in bed”. I walked a bit. The running stretches got shorter and the walking stretches longer. My stomach wasn’t doing too great either when I ran.  Luckily I didn’t need to use a bathroom until the mile 90 spot. And that was only to see if it would help relief my tight stomach. I knew where every bathroom would be along the course, due to my handy dandy chart. I couldn’t bare risking squatting in the woods at this point in the race. I may not get back up and would have to sit/lay with my bare butt in some 40 degrees. Nevertheless, I carried wet wipes
Sitting down in the restroom
along. From experience,..they come in handy
J. Trying to hold on the handle bar next to the bowl, I noticed my legs getting ready to cramp up and I decided to take a heroic and brave “trust fall” onto the seat. No cramps. Uff. Dodged a bullet there. I almost didn't get back up, but with some awkward, maneuvering, I somehow managed. No stomach relief, but I figured I better get going before my body decides to shut down. 

My A-Goal was sub 18hour, but my lead kept expanding (over 35 minutes now) and thus I decided to walk the last 10 miles and therefore didn’t hit my sub 18 goal, but it was a conscious decision as I flipped priorities and was more concerned with winning. I admitted to Kyle that I may not be doing this sort of racing thing again (also told Christina that she shouldn't take anything I say towards the end of the race or right after too serious :) )

From this point Kyle and I agreed to walk it in, unless we saw a headlamp behind us. I attempted to run a few times, but stopped 5-6 steps into each try. I could do it if I had to. I knew this, because we got scared once. Thinking a car  headlight or something behind us was a runner and I took off. Kyle stayed behind to see if it was a runner. Kyle could easily catch me and let me know what to do next. It wasn’t a runner though and we un-ceremoniously continued our walk. I picked up the running pace with the stadium in sight and was overly excited running the last 200 meters to the finish. It had been a long day and I was excited and couldn’t grasp that I was indeed winning the Lean Horse 100 race. I have such respect for that distance would never have believed that I would be in the position to accomplish this. My wife and father in law were cheering me on, somehow had a cow bell and I crossed the finish line. Later on, in the pictures and videos I could see that Kyle had moved over to let me have this moment on my own. What a classy move. Couldn’t have gotten to this point without his coaching and expertise though. Thanks Kyle!

My finishing time was 18:20:45. I am beyond happy with my race and am also excited to work out some kinks (IT-Bands, no walking last 10 miles etc.) and see how fast I can run this race in the future.

Thanks to my crew (Sandra, Mandy, Leiana, Christina, Crew-Chief Bill) and Kyle for crewing as well as pacing. A well-organized race allowed me to have the best race experience of my life!

Taken by Jonathan Karol around mile 4

Thursday, June 30, 2016

FANS 12 hour (Minneapolis, MN)

Pre-race pep talk
Her mouth moved, but I couldn’t quite make out the words. Leaning in, I noticed her cute dimple twitching with excited energy getting ready to repeat her expert advice for my upcoming race: “Run super fast, Papa!” My race strategy couldn’t have been summed up any better than the wisdom my 2 year old daughter let me in on. In addition the pouted: “Wanna race too!”. One day little mouse. One day.


For today I was loaded with all kinds of endorphins based on the cutest pep talk and the encouragement from my wife to have fun with my race.


Training had been going fantastic and I was anxiously awaiting the start of the FANS 12 Hour race. I was anticipating to set a personal best for distance covered, previously at 62.2 miles (100km). All conditions pointed at a successful outcome. I set my 100km PR in windy, cold Fargo on hilly sandy terrain. Today, I was going to run on a pancake flat, wind-shielded looped course, where I wasn’t forced to carry all my fluids and nutrition with me, but leave it at my own little aid-station to which I had access to every 2.14 miles. Temps were going to start out around 60 degrees and not exceed 73 during the noon hour. The race director’s instructions to follow the correct course were pretty simple. We just needed to make sure that the lake is on our left. That basically covered it.


So, 12 hours. There is likely more productive things you can accomplish in those 720 minutes. Like drive from Brookings, SD all the way through Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. Not sure what you would want to do there (a race maybe?). You could watch the entire first two seasons of The Office and still have time to watch the god-awful The Happening and still have 13 minutes left over to try to recover from that tragic decision. Otherwise you can fly from Chicago to Shanghai in the same time span and for sure cover more ground than I would that day. You get it. 12 hours is long. It seems daunting. I’ve run 12 hours on a couple other occasions and was able to cover 50 and 58.5 miles respectively. I’ve learned that you are going to mentally hurt yourself if you continuously check your watch and notice that “ooh! I only have 10.5 hours left!” Yeah, that’ll make you want to jump in the lake and not run around it.

Everyone getting ready to start the race

After giving Christina and Leiana a kiss I toed the starting line and off we went. I settled right into 2nd/3rd place running next to two time defending 24 hour champion Doug and started picking his brain for race strategy, nutrition needs and all kinds of things related to running 24 hours. Already far ahead of us was the guy holding the second fast trail 100 mile time in US history. He was also running the 12 hour race. My old motto came up already 5 minutes into the race. Either he is much faster than me and I have no business staying with him, or he will cave later and I have a chance to pick him off towards the end of the race. Without much suspense, he would lap me 6-7 times and ended up 14 miles ahead of me, setting a new Course Record.


A couple of laps into the race, Doug dropped back as his 24 hour pace shouldn’t realistically match my 12 hour pace, or he would be in trouble in the second half of his race. At this point, my new running friend Chris has moved up and settled in next to me. He was running the 6 hour race (ended up winning it too in a new Course Record) and was happy to find someone to run a decent pace next to. I knew I would have to slow down eventually, but wanted to take advantage of my legs feeling spry. Foolishly, I calculated ahead. What if I ran this pace throughout the 12 hours? Boy, I was setting all kinds of records. It’s funny how your brain can be THAT optimistic. Of course, later on, my per mile pace dropped by 1-2 minutes, squashing my brains earlier optimism.


Coors Light :)
If I recall correctly, Chris and I ran for 2-3 hours together, but it really felt like 20 minutes or so. We only split up as I had to take a 20 second bathroom break. Good sign, by the way. I must’ve been drinking fluids sufficiently as I passed the color test easily.


Jumping out of the port-a-john I saw Chris up ahead and was briefly going to try to catch up again, but thought better of it and settled into a slightly slower pace than we had been running. Finally, I had come to my senses and realized that another 9 hours laid ahead and I should be saving my legs at least a little bit.


My personal aid station was set up right after the Start/Finish line. I had several bottles filled with Gatorade and some Coca-Cola reserved for later in the race, when I wanted to have sugar and caffeine fueling me. The night before, Christina had actually asked me if I could spare a bottle or two for her during the race, so that she wouldn’t have to drive to the store and I EMPHATICALLY explained to her that I had meticulously planned out my nutrition and counted the calories I would consume per hour and that any deviation would throw a wrench into the entire operation. Needless to say, I didn’t drink a single one of my bottles. Sorry hun J.

Aid Station Captain Leiana at work

 A few more laps went by and I had lost count at this point when I saw a little blonde bundle of joy and energy in the distance yelling:”PAPA!” Christina picked her up quickly and ran over to my aid station and I embraced the two. What a great pick me up. Not that I was feeling down or anything, but it never hurts to see those two J. Shortly after this, I went through the marathon mark around 3:45h and was wondering if I could finish 3 marathons in the 12 hour span. We will see.


Leiana told me again that she wanted to race with me and I tried for a few feet to have her run next to me. Only then did she realize that running with me meant running away from mommy. That’s a no no.! She cried almost immediately and I quickly turned around to bring her back. I saw them on the next couple of laps as they were playing in the playground nearby and felt very fortunate to have these two support me in my strange endeavors.


Throughout the next few hours rain and sunshine interrupted each other, but was a welcomed change up in the day. Half way through the race, I cheered on Chris as he was running shorter laps, getting closer to finish his 6 hour race. My 6 hour split was something like 40.5 miles (65km) and would’ve placed 2nd behind him.


I started setting smaller incremental goals and began with the 50 mile (80km) mark. During my Sandhills 100K in March, I ran the first 50 miles in 7:30h and noticed that I could hit that split again if I simply kept going at my 8:30 minute per mile pace. Indeed, I crossed that mark at 7:29h and was happy to have set a PR during this race. My legs still felt strong and I zeroed in on my next goal. The 100km mark was only 12.2 miles away and I had 2 hours to reach it in order to set yet another PR. Additionally, I have never ran past the 100K distance. So, as soon as I would reach 100.1K I would set a new longest distance PR. It’s crazy how fast the time flew by. I guess running this course in a nice and even rhythm will help you lose track of time. Imagine a washing machine on a gentle cycle and you understand the rhythm, the course lay-out and the excitement of this type of race J.

Making sure I have
my bottles

12 miles (19km) later, going into lap 29, I picked up the pace as I wanted to hit the 100K in under 9:30:41h, which was my PR. The marker never seemed to come and I grew weary picking up my pace even more and staring at my watch as the second ticked by. Where was thi 
s stupid sign? I had run this lap 28 times already and couldn’t remember how far down the trail it was. FYI, the brain doesn’t work at max capability when you have been running for 9+ hours. Around a small bend, the sign appeared and I sprinted towards it. Crossing the threshold, I looked down…9:30:36…YES! 5 second PR. I hadn’t anticipated this leading up to the race or even half way through it, but now I was happy to have reached this point. I high-fived myself and lived with the fact that the increased pace over the last few minutes would likely take a toll down the road. However, I had my PR. It was a good day.


Well, only 2.5 hours left to run!


The next two hours went by in a blur until I saw my girls again. Leiana ran with me again about 20 feet or so, but after tripping and falling, she again sought out the comfort of mommy. Can’t blame her J. I was looking forward to that as well, as soon as the 12 hours were up.

I fought off cramps in my hamstrings for about 45 minutes now and kept them at bay by slowing my pace for a while. I was mad that I hadn’t trained my legs enough to start cramping up on me, but also realized that they had carried me further than ever before, so I made peace with them and apologized to each as well J.


Going into the shorter laps (1/8 mile; 200 meters) allowed each runner to get an accurate distance without being stranded on the long lap as time ran out. Here I picked up my second (or was it my 5th or 6th?) wind and clocked another 20 laps, finishing with 76.9 miles (123.7km), good for second place and 9th best all-time (15 years).


Now I had two priorities, hugging and kissing my family and finally stopping at the aid station that served pizza. Pretty sure I ran off enough calories to have a slice or two. Or three. Or four.

I shared a couple of slices with Leiana and Christina and packed up. We were starving (after all that pizza).


Awesome personalized medal and custom mug!
Next morning came and we went back to the Start/Finish area to see the 24 hour runners finish and enjoy a communal breakfast with everyone while awards were handed out. My second place was announced with:” What a shame, this distance would normally win it…”


I hit my goal of running between 75-80 miles. Set new PRs for 50 miles, 100KM, 12 hours and furthest distance run. I didn’t walk at any point, other than picking up fluids at the aid station and never cramped. No blisters and no bonk (feeling down) throughout the entire race. I’m very happy with the outcome am considering coming back in the coming years for the 24 hours. I’ll bring an extra Coke for Christina too.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Arbor Day 5K 2016

At the beginning of each year, I peruse through all the different ultra races and marathons that I am interested in running that year and try to strategically place them throughout the months as to allow for adequate training and recovery between each of them. Afterwards, I like to sprinkle in potential 5K, 10K and similar races for speed training and the break up the monotony of lonely long distance training (which normally I really enjoy, but it’s something special to share the road/trails with some other likeminded folks (as in other crazies).
The Arbor Day 5K has no entrance fee and the award for every finisher is a free tree in order to promote planting, nurturing and appreciation of trees in the Brookings area. And did I say the entrance is free? Nothing better than getting up at the crack of dawn in the clammy cold and bust your lungs for 3.1 miles.

nusual for Brookings races, we were absolutely lucky with the weather. The morning before, I went out for a run on the course to remind myself of all the turns and inclines/declines (not many, we’re on the prairie here after all). It was raining sleet sideways and overall a miserable experience. The day after the race presented us with 29mph wind, which would likely diminish the enjoyment of the exercise.

Registration time with a beautiful sunrise in the distance
As I said, the weather was great. 38F and 4mph. Last time I ran this race, I clocked a 21:35, which I have since improved a couple of times. I achieved my current PR at the indoor 5K earlier this year: 19:38 (6:19min/mi). That was my goal to beat for the day. However, I had looked up the pace I needed to run for a 18:59 (6:06min/mi), just to be prepared in case my legs felt good.

I bumped into Tim, who runs most of the Brookings races and we discovered that we were each interested in running the Lean Horse 100M. It’ll be fun having raced him in everything from 5K to 100 miles at that point.
After a very brief pre-race meeting, the race director guided everyone to the start/finish area and we lined up. The anxiety grew and everyone was staring down at their watches, getting ready to hit START on their adventure into anaerobic exhaustion.

First 100-200 meters
Without much hesitation the GO was given sharply at 6:30am and we were off. The first 100-200 meters are a mirage of someone's ability, as most people go off too fast. I was no exception with settling in right behind 2 former college runners and next to another guy who looked faster than me. Since Tim was behind me I decided to not run by feel, but check my watch and my 5:30min/mile pace was not well advised at this point in the race. I deliberately shifted a gear down and settled in right at 6:06 pace and saw Tim flying by me almost instantaneously. There wasn’t a lot of strategy in this 5K. Unlike marathons and longer races, you don’t need to worry about nutrition and fluids. Pacing should ideally be even throughout and thus, the mental aspect only comes in ones the lactate builds up and your legs and lungs beg you to slow down. That point was still a couple of miles away, so I simply focused on my strides and tried breathing as evenly and calm as the conditions allowed (running hard in 38F does hurt a bit in the lungs if I may admit).
Fast forward to the last mile and I was in good shape. I was keeping my pace even, but felt that I didn’t have much left in the tank for a final kick down to the finish line. When I finish other races with a strong kick (going back to high school track even), I always wonder if I should’ve gone faster beforehand and not saved those reserves. I had gotten closer to 4th place and tried catching up to him before the final turn. I knew he’d look over his shoulder then and once he saw me would take off. I didn’t get close enough to him to surprise and pass him. He was a good 200 feet away when he took the turn and as predicted, looked, saw me, put his head down and quickly separated himself from me again. I was now within the last few hundred feet and saw that the clock was in the early 18:XXs and thought that I could really get under 19:00. Not being able to move my legs any faster, I tried to make my strides longer to cover more ground with the same amount of steps and somehow crossed the line in 18:52 (6:04 min/mile) (on my watch, official results pending). 5th place and a 45 second personal best. My 8th consecutive race with a PR!

Not a bad start to a Friday morning.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Sandhills 100K

Preparation for a race can take on many more layers than I ever anticipated when I started taking running more serious about 3 years ago. With every passing race I get a bit more into the data I have accumulated over time and look for new ways to gain the slightest edge over my previous performance (at times geeking out about facts & figures that end up not mattering, but oh well)
reviewing previous race splits, weather reports, & the impact of daylight savings time on my race weight (not true :) )

Thus far, more preparation has always led to better results. It is crucial to still leave enough room for flexibility, as during an ultramarathon, you are out there for such a long time that it is unrealistic to expect to know what will happen. I studied the course to the point where I knew virtually every turn in order to avoid any chance of getting lost (still almost happened, but I could follow foot steps in the snow). I knew the weather by the hour (including the sunrise and sunset times, which helped me understand where I should place my headlamp and whether I would eventually need it or not; plus I had too much time on my hand to research this) and had the appropriate gear/clothing on me to ensure that it’s not going
obligatory pre-race gear picture
Aid Station Splits for 10 hour finish

to impact my race negatively. My nutrition was planned out to the point where I wouldn’t need any of the aid stations provided. During my training leading up to the race, I narrowed down exactly which clothes I would be wearing and included a fully loaded backpack so that I would know what it feels like to have it on me for hours at a time.  

The Sandhills 100K has been on my planned race list for a little over a year. As I prepare for my first 100 Mile (160km) race later this year, I wanted to gradually increase my race distances and improve my times on the shorter distance to build strength to withstand the impact 100 miles can have on your body and mind. The last thing I want is harming my body long-term. A mindful training and racing plan will help prolong my running career.
It was a serious enough race to require mandatory gear. To a certain healthy extent, I gained even further appreciation for the distance. We needed:

- 1.5 liter hydration
- headlamp (w/ spare batteries/ oh great, night running!)
- cell phone
- emergency whistle
- extra socks
- extra outer layer
- extra mid layer

Last year I ran the Sandhills 50K in order to re-con the course and race environment to set myself up well for the 100K the following year. Through the 50K, I knew 50% of the course and I was able to explore a little more of the course on a couple of occasions when I travelled to North Dakota for work.

A fresh layer of snow covered the ground at the campground where the racers mingled pre-dawn. Forecast had the wind-chill all day below freezing with 15-20mph wind coming from the North. What else could you be doing on a Saturday morning in March than run 100km in freezing temperatures through North Dakota? (Well maybe sleeping in, eating pancakes and watching Netflix)

It’s an out-and-back course, meaning you run from point A to B and back to A. The first and last 17 miles of the course are through rolling Sandhills (hence the race name) in the Sheyenne National Grasslands 45 minutes outside of Fargo, ND. The Sandhills have the nasty characteristic of being runnable. Larger hills on other courses allow you to slow down and catch your breath while power-hiking. These hills were gentle in incline, but what they lacked in elevation they made up for in frequency. 
8am Start
After the last pre-race instructions from the race director, we were off at 8am sharp. My goal was to be back by 6pm. Writing it like that seems ludicrous, but I ensure you it never felt like that much time was passing during the run. Within the first 50 meters I tucked in behind another runner and we briefly exchanged our race goals. Internally I gasped when he mentioned that he was going for possibly 9 hours. I had my eyes set on breaking 10 hours. His 9 hour goal impressed me even more, since he told me that he had a 100 mile race two weeks later. I was hoping to be walking again in two weeks! Knowing that his required pace would likely not be sustainable to me for the duration of the race, I slightly fell back and let him pull away in the first couple of miles. Heading into the Sandhills I lost sight of him on several occasions when he was a few hills or switchbacks ahead of me. I did follow his footsteps closely and looked for the length of his stride on the flats vs. the uphills. It seemed that he was running the uphills pretty hard. This confirmed that I was well advised not going with him, because one of two things were likely to happen: 1) Either he is that fast of a runner and I have no business of staying with him or 2) he will slow down significantly later on and I may have a chance of catching up later and make this race competitive.

Luckily, the freezing temps actually hardened the ground to the point that your feet wouldn’t sink in as much as I feared. This allowed the first 17 miles to go by much easier than anticipated. I had planned on passing through the first aid station at 2:45h elapsed, but surprised myself that my watch was showing only 2:20h. Checking my heart rate monitor, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going hard too early on. Since it hovered in the low 150s, I wasn’t too concerned, but reminded myself not to speed up until the end of the race.

Since the 17 mile aid station indicated the end of the Sandhills for now, it was now open prairie running. The runner ahead of me had taken a few minutes at the aid station and since I was still fully stocked on water and food, I ran through the aid station and was a good minute behind him. It felt like a race from here on out.

Since we were running out in the open I could see him throughout this entire time and kept measuring our distance by timing the point at which he ran through the cow gates that were connecting the fenced-in areas of grazing land. We kept at around 40 seconds to a minute apart and I had no plan on catching up to him anytime soon. I know the feeling when someone is so close behind you and it can drive some runners crazy. I was hoping he’d be more concerned with me than to think about his own pacing and nutrition.

It had warmed up slightly and the sun had come out. We had the wind in our backs. Having studied the weather pattern for the day, I knew the wind was only getting stronger on the way back, so I shed a layer of clothes in order to let them dry out. Being sweaty and heading into the cold head-wind on the way back would surely deny me any motivation to keep running and rather huddle into a warm car.

Before the race I had joked with my father-in-law Bill, that I prepared every aspect that I could think about except for the train schedule. Since the race course passed over some tracks, I had feared to get stuck behind one of these notoriously long trains. Within 4 minutes of crossing said tracks, a mile long train was slowly puttering away and I was wondering how many runners behind us would have to wait in that agonizing position.

By the mile 26 aid station, I caught the runner up-front as he stopped for water and I cruised past the aid station and crossed the highway to the next trail head. Here, the first 50K runners were greeting me as they were headed the opposite way. It was a very uplifting feeling to hear their encouragements, but I had gotten ahead of the other runner and was now in the dreaded position I described earlier. I tried to catch a glimpse on where he was whenever I could and this made me stumble over the many cow pies a couple of times as I wasn’t watching my steps. I must’ve had a good 2-3 minute lead now and wanted to use the wind in my back to keep the momentum going into the turn-around point. Now that I knew he takes a few minutes at each aid station, I wanted put a noticeable distance between us to set myself up well for the second half of the race. At the 31mile turn around, I had lost sight of him and rummaged through my drop bag, which I had filled with some Coca-Cola, caffeinated energy-gels and chicken broth (for sodium, as I was diluting my blood by drinking lots of water). My father-in-law met me with some refreshing sweet-tea and I gulped down a good half liter of it. Great thinking on his part! The added sugar would help restore my carbohydrate storage. I spent a mere 2-3 minutes re-fueling and filling up my pockets with exactly the amount of food I needed for the remainder of the race. Heading back out, I immediately noticed the head-wind. The temperature felt like it had dropped 20 degrees and the next 15 miles were going to be nasty. 4:28h had passed and I was 32 minutes ahead of schedule. I felt elated, but knew I wasn’t going to duplicate this time on the way back. My legs were tired and I had a little more than a half-marathon ahead of me going into the wind (before running another 17 through sandhills). Running with the head down for most of this stretch, I finally noticed the numerous cow pies lining the trail. I thought certain spots had felt "squishy" earlier.

On my way out the other runner and I greeted each other and I estimated a 5-6 minute lead on him. The next few miles weren’t so pretty, because my legs were on the edge of seizing up on me and I couldn’t push as much as I wanted. I had to be content with going easy pace until they would loosen up again. I met the 3rd place about 45 minutes later and knew that it meant a 1:30h lead on him, which made me feel confident that I would get away with a podium finish today unless I messed up later on.

The wind was relentless and chilled me to the bone. Having taken off a layer earlier, I was glad that it had dried by this point and it was a much needed relief. Looking at the weather report had definitely paid off big time! After I passed through the aid station at mile 37 I needed to stop every other mile and stretch out my legs. They weren’t getting any better and I rather spent a few seconds on them now than having bad cramps later on that could derail the entire race. A couple of these took longer that anticipated. Time seemed to fly by and I swear I could've watched all of Netflix in that time span. Nevertheless, trudging on, I came across the railroad tracks again and about 7-8 minutes after another train passed. I couldn’t see the end of it and it gave me a boost of confidence as it meant that the next runner couldn’t have crossed the tracks yet and I most certainly must be increasing my lead. However, due to these frequent stops, my paranoia grew that the other runner would catch up with me eventually and I would've not been in any position to stay with him.

I never did see him and eventually got to the mile 46 aid station, where I met Bill again. Filling my empty bottles now with defizzed coke (yum!) I noticed that the other’s runner crew wasn’t there. He must be further behind than I thought! Well, only roughly 16-17 miles to go from here. About 6:54h have passed at this point and since I only had to cover roughly 4 miles, a new 50 mile personal best was definitely happening (previous was 9:04h). I celebrated for a brief moment when I reached that point and must’ve looked pretty funny if someone were to see me from far away. I was leaning against a fence post stretching my ever-aching calves and generally looking drained, but fireworks were going off in my head and I must’ve had the strangest mixture of elation and agony in my eyes. One of the many conundrums I love about running these absurd distances. Another 4 miles later, I started feeling much better and simply waved at the last aid station attendants and knew I was on my last hour of running. My strategy was to use my last „kicker“ once I hit the bridge crossing the little creek. I had chosen a specific fast paced play list on my Ipod (Justin Bieber, One Direction, Taylor Swift :) )and once my ear buds went in and the music started, my feet seemingly got lighter. My previous „kickers“ were the sugar in the sweet tea, the caffeine in my gels in the second half, the sugar & caffeine in the coke and now the music. It was an extreme mental boost each time I reached the checkpoint where I had decided to implement them!

I got additional motivation since I started passing several 50K runners that were at the end of their race as well. Their encouraging words pushed even further. I crossed the final road with 3.7miles to go and Bill was waiting to cheer me on one last time before the finish. In order to shed some weight, I channeled my inner frat party mentality and chugged the remaining fluids out of my bottles and tossed them to him. Checking my watch it was exactly 9h elapsed. I set my goal to finishing in 9:30h. This last segmented goal gave me yet another boost to push further. My calves approached the brink of cramping, but I was lucky to being able to balance the fine line between going at the limit and going just over it.

The last rolling hills were brutal and I kept trying to remember what this area looked liked in order to predict when the finish should be coming around the corner. I couldn’t trust my watch anymore at this point as the GPS got all wonky on me and started showing that i was running 3minute miles (impossible world record pace) and I ended up with 94 miles apparently.

Crossing the finish line with
Christina & Leiana on FaceTime
With 4 turns to go I could make out the finish area and put in my last gear and simultaneously juggled my cell phone around in my gloves. Not having thought this through, since I couldn’t dial with my gloved fingers, I ran 7 minute pace while dialing my wife on FaceTime with my nose! People must’ve thought I am extremely near-sighted! The call went through despite the shoddy coverage in the area and I saw Christina and Leiana playing on the screen and cheering me on as I crossed the finish line. A cramp had begun 30 yards earlier and now was taking full effect, but I didn’t care. I was on the absolute best runners high ever!

The race director congratulated me and I returned the gesture and thanked him for a great organized race. Bill met me and I got changed quickly as my body was cooling down quickly now. The camp fire next to the finish line was a welcomed sight. Bill and I mingled for a little bit with some of the 50K runners (including my friend Scott, who I ran the 50K with the year prior).

Bill and I headed home and reminisced about the race for a while and I learned that the other runner had dropped at the 37 mile aid station. Had I learned this about 3 hours earlier, I wouldn’t have had to endure that discomfort on the last 20 miles or so. Still, I likely wouldn’t have been able to go under 10 hours either. It’s truly amazing what motivation can get the body to do. I hope he recovers quickly and does well in his 100 miler in Minnesota.

I was very fortunate to finish the longest race I have ever attempted in a decent time of 9:30h and in first place. Surpassing my previous 50mile PR and having a race where everything seemingly clicked made this a truly special event for me. I am very happy that i got to share this with Bill on-site and Christina and Leiana over the phone screen. Now, I rest my legs with some biking, walking and swimming in California for a few days and then back at it!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Riddlebox 50K 2015

The wet cold gravel crunched below the soles of my moccasins. The wind bit at my exposed face and throat. I was headed uphill, lowering my head to shield my face from the sub-freezing temperatures that were thrown at me by a mighty headwind.
I've been in need of some warmth for what seemed to be an eternity...

In need of extra clothing!!!! Even before the race!
...It turned out I was only in the parking lot of the Calico Skies Winery, where the Riddlebox 50K would be held today. I had left my car a mere 48 seconds ago and was wondering about my decision to sign up for an outdoor ultramarathon in South Dakota in December. Several Fat Bike racers where next to me unloading their equipment. I've been intrigued by the fat bikes for a good year now and will likely get a hold of one somehow in the future. A colleague of mine, Eduardo, owns one and has offered it to me for a test ride. I will take him up on it soon and possibly (likely, I mean, they are awesome!) develop a love for yet another sport.
However, these guys seemed better prepared clothing wise than I was. Granted they would be traveling at a higher speed and thus experience a higher velocity induced cold (sounds smart, doesn't it?) than me, but what's this difference between 12 degrees or 5? At some point everything goes numb.

I entered the winery and almost (!) immediately stopped my internal complaining. This was a low-key event to top off a great year in running for me and really just wanted to get another 50K into my results book. For a long time, I've been chasing this elusive feeling of redlining during a race, yet feeling as if you're floating at a seemingly unsustainable pace. That, is to date the best way that I have found to describe the phenomenon that is called the "Runner's High". You forget all pain, and are just moving along, effortlessly, disregarding the previous discomfort and exhaustion levels. Do not make big decisions in this state of mind! It may take a while to pay off :).
Of course, I had my race goals. I always had and always will have a personal goal. I targeted a sub 4hour 31.2 mile (50km) race for the first time in my life. Just this year I improved my 50K PR from 5:07 (last year's Riddlebox) to 4:35h during the Sandhills 50K in North Dakota. Meaning, I thought that my training was good enough for a 36 min PR. Ambitious. I had recently PR'd at the half marathon and marathon distances, so I knew it's possible, but everything would need to click today. The relaxing realization was that if I didn't, I may just not write about it :).

Additionally, it helps to have a B-goal and a C-goal, and depending on your commitment level (D through H goals).

A goal: Sub 4 hours
B goal: PR (sub 4:35h)
C goal: Pace below 8min/mile

It was a small field and we joked around while trying to stay warm at the starting line. The signal was given and off we went. My friend Jill went off with determination and took the overall lead, letting everyone know she means business today. I followed her and we chatted through the early rolling hills. After a few minutes of dialog we both put our heads down and went after our goals that day. Having researched the course, I knew I had some more smaller hills coming and wanted to get through them without expanding too much energy, while simultaneously beginning to gap the remainder of the field. See, I didn't write it down as a goal, but I really wanted to win this one after placing 2nd the year before. However, I would've been happy placing last as long as I got a new PR.

luckily this guy wasn't in the race. I wouldn't have had a shot!

Early on, we encountered a handful of turns at which you were able to look back and see the remaining runners. Usually I use that to my advantage in a chase situation. I hadn't led a field before other than one 5K in the summer. I reversed the situation and tried to estimate the lead I had on the rest of the runners. By looking at my watch while taking a turn, I kept looking back to time the point at which they would hit that same turn. This way I could gauge over a few miles if I was making any progress or not.

Multiple times in the next few miles I remembered the same stage of the race last year, only that I was running behind and not ahead. Looking back (not time wise, but actually over my shoulder, I could see a familiar figure emerging. Ed, in his running kilt was moving smoothly and looked strong.

Good doggy. Please don't bite. I'll run faster because of you
I passed a small farm with a seemingly rabid dog who chased me down the gravel road for a good quarter mile. The same dog helped me measure my distance to Ed once more, as I simply waited until I could hear that all too familiar bark by now and I knew I was slowly getting away. I ran through the first aid station and greeted the people there. I can imagine running in these conditions. I cannot imagine attending to some crazies like us in the same conditions. It takes a special grit to do that. My hat is off to the volunteers. Before the race I gave my wife a map of the race and gave her 3 points of possible with estimated times. I'm happy to say that I had the 5.47 mile mark on the spot at 9:42am exactly. This was extremely encouraging in my pursuits that day.

We had our steepest climb coming up and I made sure to not worry about pace, but make smaller steps and keep my heart rate low. We were just at the 6 mile point and I had 25+ miles to go. No need to burn all the fuel now.

Pre-race planning
I took my pace down that hill quite liberally and extended my gate and really ran by feel and enjoyment. It's a thrill running downhill while having to navigate crevasses, rocks and all other inconsistencies that the trail had to offer.

I was running up a gradual and consistent uphill for the next mile and half and knew that I could really do some damage here. If I didn't exert myself too much here, but still put forth a good effort, I could gain double the time than on a flat surface. My goal was to lose Ed by the next aid station.

We were facing a strong and cold air bearing head wind which made our endeavor even harder than it needed to be. I looked for the positive and thought through the prep I had done leading up to the race. I knew where the hills were on the re-routed race course and the weather for the day. I was headed north and the wind, as predicted, was coming toward us merciless. I skipped the next aid station for two reasons. I had plenty of fluid left until mile 20 and I knew I could gain valuable time by running through this one, anticipating that the pursuit group was going to stop for a brief moment. Also, I was now headed east and no longer had the wind to content with.

On the next bridge crossing, I almost ate gravel because I looked towards the next aid station, which was pretty special. Now, they had water, which is what we runners usually look for. But their line-up of PBR and whiskey was enticing as well. As soon as I tried to zero in on them, I forgot my footing and slid for what seemed forever (one second maybe?) on some ice. I resorted to only water (it was a race after all) and went on my way.

Every road intersection I saw in the distance I targeted as a new goal. Get there before the bikes. The Fat Bike 50K racers were unleashed an hour after us runners. I was clicking off the miles and was super excited that no one was in view. I put my head down and pushed forward. Close to the mile 20 aid station I finally heard a smooth whizzing behind me and knew the first biker had arrived. By the time I turned around, he was past me and sped away. He looked strong and I took a lot of motivation from it. A mere 10 miles from the finish and I could cap this endeavor off.

This was also the turning point and I had 7 miles to go south. That means WITH the wind. I really started throwing caution in the wind and accelerated. Even hitting a small paved road section and I was confident in my race. I hit the marathon mark at 3:20, which was my second best marathon time ever. I knew I was doing well now!

I just had to close out. I was approaching the last few miles that had a few nasty hills and I contended myself by finally running on my special "Running" playlist on my Ipod. It helped my through some twitching calves and before I knew it I was headed down the final descent seeing Christina and Leiana in the distance and a wave of emotions overcoming me. I crossed the finish line in a personal best 3:57 (goal A!) winning my first ultramarathon ever. Having my girls there made it all the more special. My main goal for getting faster is for them not having to wait so long for me :).
One of the few ultras where I actually have both feet of the ground! 

This is a great end-of-the-year race and I look forward to partaking in the years to come. Kamp, the race director, looked out for us throughout the race and really put together and nice course in the Iowa country side.

Looking forward to next year!