Sunday, March 26, 2017

END-SURE 100 Miler

Bzzt Bzzzt! Bzzt Bzzzt! 
Bzzt Bzzzt! Bzzt Bzzzt! 
Why can't the alarm just be quiet???

I have yet to perfect the art of the nap. Screw the REM sleep cycle. I understand how it works, but it doesn't adjust to the actual time I fall asleep. Not when I go to bed, but when I zonk out! So quantity matters at this point! Well it's 8:38. In the PM! I haven't napped this late since I was in college on a Friday or Saturday evening, when I was planning on being out all night. Well, this wasn't much different, but importantly so in one special manner: I was going to run. All night. And all day. And all night again if necessary.
I'd probably end up feeling as "good" as I would after a night out in college :).

This race, the END-SURE (Extreme North Dakota Sandhills Ultra Run Experience) 100 miler (160km) would start on Friday evening at 11pm. My major concern here was sleep deprivation. I knew I could run the distance. I knew the course well, as I've run the 50K and 100K versions before and have trained here a could 5-6 times. Temperatures were going to be below freezing throughout the night, but I've run all winter long in -30 to -20 degree weather and know what that feels like. The course went over relentless rolling sandhills in the cold North Dakota prairie, which never really invited a comfortable rhythm.
You start at Jorgen's Hollow, run to the right and come back (11 miles) run south to the West Trail Head for ~31 miles, back up and along the northern route back to the intersection for another 20 and then back to Jorgen's Hollow. Looks small on the map, but takes a long ass time, trust me!

My preparation for this unique night had started two days prior (in regards to sleep, I've run for longer than that :) ). To the dismay of my family and colleagues I went cold turkey off caffeine, and was likely grumpy due to it (hope it wasn't too severe), but this way it would have much bigger kick during the race if I felt sleepy, which was pretty much a guarantee. Also, I took the day off from work, so that I wouldn't take a 8 hour office day into the race. I rather was able to sleep in until 10am, in order to get off my regular sleep cycle.

After I finished packing, I met my wife at Pizza Ranch for lunch and loaded up on carbs as much as seemed reasonable (as in: A LOT!). I went to pick up my father-in-law, who once again was going to be my crew chief and we took the interstate north for the next 4 hours.
Freezing temps...HA! (pre-race attitude)

Our last pre-race intel session included driving the gravel road section that I would encounter in the second half of the race. It's much easier for me to mentally prep for a race if I know where to take a turn, where hills are going to be and anything else that may surprise me in an energy-depleted state.

Bill and I grabbed some quick dinner at a local dive bar/restaurant and got to our hotel by 6:30pm. By 6:32pm I was asleep, trying to get one up on the night ahead of me.
We're at 8:38pm, just over two hours until race start. I call my wife and daughter and pretend it's early in the morning. Even though I'm 100% aware that it isn't, it somehow seems to help. I maintained that mindset throughout the night and never got really tired. It always felt like early morning.

Losing dexterity in my fingers and getting chapped lips!
Should've brought my chap stick from Bare Bear Butter!
As we get to the campsite where the race starts, I wonder about the accuracy of the weather forecast. It was supposed to by high 30s or low 40s.
This wind was cutting the temps down into the teens. My dexterity in my fingers was questionable before the gun even went off. This didn't necessarily put me in the highest level of confidence, but it did increase my pace of getting ready. The RD (race director) had let on that he would start the race early if everyone was accounted for and ready.

At 10:50pm he gave us the pretty low key "Go." and off we went. Nothing else was on my mind. Such clarity and freedom is a rare beauty to experience when you have nothing to worry about (other than 100 miles ahead of you) and get to do something that you love.

Within minutes I was all alone in the prairie of North Dakota in the dark of night. It was cloudy and thus the only light guiding my way came from my head torch. Without, I'd literally be lost. Luckily, I had a second one in my backpack, just in case. Ducking in and out of trees in this area I could feel the massive power of the wind.
race start; it was darker than this though :)
Once gone, I thought I could run all day (which was the plan), but with it hitting me straight on, I didn't know if I could run 3 miles an hour, plus it was bitter cold. Knowing the forecast, I expected the wind to die down within a handful of hours of the race, and I was also going to be covered by the forest for 2-3 hours, so I wasn't too concerned with it. An out and back and a short loop had us return to the start line after 11 miles. It's a little after midnight and I tried to keep my urge to race the other runners down. I was calm when it was dark, and anxious when I saw another headlamp behind me. Luckily, I wouldn't see another headlamp for the rest of the race. After 13 miles I was alone. All alone. It got so quiet that a couple of raccoons got the better of me, and I needed a 30 second break to calm my heart rate. It was so cloudy that there were no stars, no moon and generally the only sight I had was the 20ft of light that my head torch allowed me. It was a surreal experience and made me run slower than I normally would. You don't want to barrel down the wrong trail and back-track later on. To calm my nerves and ease my pace I did what I had never done in an Ultra before, I turned on my podcast app and I listened to college basketball analysis, a crime show about the mafia based in Rhode Island and a lieu of running related podcasts.

The hours and miles flew by. I kept an easy pace, kept up on nutrition and got to the aid station at ~25 miles in, woke up the attending aid station captain ( :) ), who happened to be the RD, loaded up on fluids and gels and bounced back into the night. An uneventful nine miles later (unless you count the riveting Myths and Legends podcast about Beowulf that kept me engaged) I came to the highway intersection and met Bill for the first time. Luckily he had gotten my text from an hour earlier. I was running smooth, but also sweated a good chunk. No surprise here, but it was below freezing, and I wanted to prevent any issue in regards to hypothermia if I could. A quick change of shirts, and I was back on the trail. The next six miles should go fairly smoothly and at a quick race at it virtually had no elevation change. All runnable. That is if you can see where you are going. My headlamp had been running for a good six hours already and my eyes had adjusted accordingly, but I kept taking wrong turns and back-tracking as I no longer could find trail markers. I don't know how, but somehow I could tell the trail from the cow paths by the density of rock pebbles in it's path. Not sure that it was a visual trick played on my mind, but it somehow kept getting me to the next marker. According to my GPS watch I was within a couple of miles of the west trail head, where the next aid station would be, but I had lost my way. I used my second head torch, provided by Spheres Gears, and spotlighted the prairie. I made out another marker, but it was in the wrong direction. I could see the headlights of the cars in the aid station and took the liberty to head towards those across the grasslands. Luckily, within a couple of minutes I stumbled back onto the trail and was able to find out my way again. Bill and aid station attendant Grant were excited to see me and the reciprocal effect took place within me. Every aid station or spectator always gives me another boost. I once again changed shirts and headed back out.

As a side note: the next day learned the  the intrinsical value of a real crew chief. At the aid station , Grant suggested to Bill to cook bacon and eggs for me prior to my arrival. Bill just said: "He won't eat it. He won't want to "deal" ( "deal" means "poop" if you didn't catch that) with that on the trail. He'll stick to gels and liquids. If your father in law knows your pooping habits, he's either too close to you or the perfect crew chief :). (Check if you are a runner and make your own distinction :).
Just to clarify, at any other point, Bacon and Eggs on a trail head is the most amazing thing you can offer!...Just not during a 100 miler.

Within minutes I was on my own. The clouds had lifted and I was in awe of the beautiful sky and gazed into the stars. Out on the prairie, you don't just see the big dipper and Orion. If you know where to look you may just catch a glimpse of the milky way. It's an awe-inspiring sight. I was awoken out of my star gazing trance by the yipping of coyotes. Not just a lonely male in the distance that I am used to when I run the gravel roads close to home. This was a pack. Lots of them. Close by too. I always thought I could take one or two if necessary (in the way that we all overestimate our own abilities, but this would probably not be a good encounter). What to do? Run on of course. I joked to myself that I should just pop my head phones back in and then I couldn't hear them! My wife's voice popped into my head and rather convincingly... uhh... changed my mind :). I'm quite lucky for her reasoning! I still listened to my podcasts, but over loud speaker. The animals would be able to hear me coming from far away and likely scurry off. (They did, luckily, or I was too fast for them, HA!).

The sun came up and it was one of the most beautiful sights I had seen in a long time. A sunrise is special, but witnessing it from deep darkness, gradual rise into the full bloom is phenomenal. During the procedure I kept moving. I got places to be if you understand. It took a double check on my side to see another runner in the distance. Not a surprise, this was a race after all, but this runner moving the same way as I was. Since I was in the lead, this was rather surprising. I tried whistling, but my lips were ice cold and couldn't form the right shape. Good timing to discover this. I picked up the pace to catch up and noticed that once again I had lost dexterity of my fingers. Whoa, it must be colder out than I noticed. I had struggled eating my gels and they had turned mostly solid in the freezing temps, but that all dawned on me only now. Trying to wash down my latest "solid" gel resulted in the discovery that my drinking hose, attached to my water reservoir in my backpack froze solid as well. Ok, I'm out of fluids, good thing the sun is coming up soon.
45 miles into a race; before sunrise; at 14F/-10C
Mental check to prep for this in the future. Only running 100 miles today. Easy to overcome this. I tried not to kick myself in the ass too much over this gaffe. It helped that I caught the other runner. I scared the living daylights out of her. Imagine the surprise, when you think you're in the middle of nowhere in the early morning hours and somebody passes you on the right. After a short chat we had figured out that she was headed in the wrong direction, likely turned around like I was earlier. I'm glad I caught her. She had another 2-3 miles to go before hitting the wrong aid station where she would have turn around once again. We signed up for 100 miles. Not 106 miles. THAT'd be crazy! She informed me that the next guy had dropped out. Unfortunately I found out a little later that she also dropped out a little after our encounter. At this point I had about an 8 mile lead. If I didn't drop, I was going to win. A good feeling. However, it slowed me tremendously. My drive was temporarily gone.
Realizing my water hose was frozen...
The excuse that I worked hard and could let off was here. It took about 2-3 miles to get my head straight. I changed shirts again, a re-occuring theme for the remainder of the day (Bill informed me that it was a blistering 14F/-10C, and I power hiked for a while. I watched a surprise video my wife and daughter had sent me earlier. My phone was on airplane mode to save battery. It was one of the required safety items we needed to carry along with us. After switching into WiFi mode to see if I had any new podcasts, I saw the video and their good luck wishes were very uplifting. I walked for a few minutes and recorded a brief message to them, hoping they'd see it once they woke up and knew I was doing fine and had fun being out here.

So the sun was up. I felt like I started running just a little while ago (it helps when you mentally think you started running in the early morning and not at 10:50pm the night before and the night gives nothing away in the way of time progression). Their message gave me a huge lift and I decided to turn on some tunes. I also don't do this in Ultras. I do in the last few miles of a marathon or at 5K and 10Ks. It just felt right. Getting into a slow trot I realized that I was just about 50 miles (80km) into the race and my body and mind felt like I just started running. I can't describe how amazing that feeling is! I credit it mostly to my great training this year, where for the first time I averaged 50 miles a week for 9-10 weeks straight (never before a single training week over 50 miles!). My friend and coach Kyle Kranz smartly built up this training regimen over the last 6 months and I am overly excited for the next couple of years as we transitioned into more complex and increased training. A smart coach helps you improve and stay healthy (no running injury in a couple of years; coincidentally since I started working with him).

Ahhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!! ... in gel form though ...ugh!
I had 7 miles to go and simply tried clicking them off as well as I could. Seemingly in no time (or my memory failed :)) I got there and my father-in-law Bill virtually kept me from stopping and got me right onto the trail again. Keep the momentum.

I was now taking in caffeinated gels as the lack of sleep started to get to me. It wasn't too bad, my body clock to reset with the sunrise, but even during a regular day I have a cup (or gallon) of coffee to kick it off.

I had slowed down again. I felt like this day was going to be long. I thought about my max goal of finishing in 20 hours and really thought it was in jeopardy. I had over 40 miles to go and thought that I kept slowing down. After a couple rather steep hills I was on the gravel sections that we drove just the day before. I knew it wasn't too bad from here and I picked up my pace. I kept clicking mile after a mile and my music selection had restarted a third time (my storage space isn't big enough for Ultras, perhaps a worthwhile gift in the future! HINT HINT). The only downside were some rather big
Running, per the Oxford dictionary definition
stones on this gravel section that ended up severely deeply bruising my left foot. I took some Ibuprofen to avert the immediate ramifications , but I knew I'd have to deal with it the next week or so (Speaking with more knowledge today, I was 100% right)

I started doing the math. I had a real shot at breaking 20 hours if I didn't slow down. Just keep steady. No biggy. Just over 20 miles to go. Not EVEN (yikes) a marathon to go.

I tried diving into every single lyric and beat of my running playlist. All selected just for this reason.
Nelly's "Heart of a Champion" "only five more!" (miles in my head; thanks Brittany!for the suggestion)
Alex Clare's "Too Close" ...mentally too close to slow down... (Thanks Jake! )
Justin Timberlake's "Can't stop the feeling" (just an upbeat tune I dance to with my two year old :). I kept telling myself that it's called "Leiana's song"!)

I got the end of the gravel road section and mentally prepped for the rest of the race. My last words to Bill were "Maybe...If all goes well...I'll break 20...(as in hours).

My mood picked up severely only three minutes later. I entered the trail at mile marker 8(ish). I had thought it'd be at mile 10. This gave me the confidence of having won 2 miles! I followed all markers! No short cutting!
That boost told me that 20 hours wasn't just possible, but that I really should be getting it. All of the sudden the music meant even more, despite being on it's 5th loop or so, and I picked up my pace. Only a handful of miles until the Middle Trail head where I would see Bill for the last time. I felt amazing. With the cars in sight, I knew I only had about a half marathon to go and realized that I don't have any blisters, cramps or other issues.

I heard the cheering from some runners from the 25K/50K race at this point and it truly sustained me for the next 10 miles or so. They had encounter a tough patch in their day, but they still gathered up the energy to cheer me on and tried to get me to the finish line. That's the special community in ultra running that I love. You're out for an entire day, but you give/get the energy you can during the few seconds of encounter that you have!

NOW, I was in race mode. I knew no one was behind me. I wanted a decent time. A good time. A personal best to be honest.

I told myself:" Take everything the course gives you". I hiked the uphills (a welcomed break, but still high HR), ran the flats hard (as much as you can after 85+ miles/136+ km) and sprinted the downhills to make up time.

My body held up. I couldn't believe it. My only other 100 mile (160km) experience ended in me walking the last 10 miles (160km); if not longer. This time I could go longer. And I would!

I "picked off "50K" runners that had hit the wall. This has happened to me a few times before, but it felt great setting small incremental goals to run up to each and every runner. I kept picking up my pace and wanted to END-SURE (pun intended!)  that I wouldn't have too much left in the tank.

I wasn't afraid of 20 hours anymore. I was running fast. As in: a half marathon, not a 100 miler. Not sure where this came from, but I took it. I flirted with sub 18 at this point, but the last 3 miles were littered with ice puddles, which really represented more as smaller ponds to be honest. The first few I skated/ skidded/ slid across. The last five I crushed though by truly dunking and soaking my feet in
Running high mixed with caffeine!
ice cold water. I was luckily able to take this as a mental boost to take each refreshing step as a boost! If I wasn't within 4 miles of the finish, I wouldn't have run the water, as it guarantees blisters and foot problems after just a short while.

Two more runners down and I could make out the camp ground in the distance. I dropped every regard for self-preservation and took my stride into a sprint. Leaving the trail and headed onto the last quarter mile on the gravel road I face-timed my wife and let her join in on this experience. I crossed the finish line at a course record 18:11h with Bill cheering me on and me being in disbelief that I was able to finish this strong. Instead of challenging 20 hours, I flirted with sub 18 hours over only 20 miles or so.

Whatever you eat, it's a calorie deficit! Dig in!
After a brat and some chocolate milk, Bill and I returned to the hotel, watched some March Madness, ate our hearts out on food and drink sweet tea and chocolate. Nothing to crazy. We were in Lisbon, ND after all. Nothing too crazy possible :).

Not sure how exactly, but lucky pacing and
decent training sure helped!
I love this race. I've run 50km, 100km and 100 miles here in the past years. Now I'm tempted to run the 25km here next year to complete the cycle as the first person. Funnily, I'm kind of scared of the 25K, as i sound really hard, since you run your lungs out the entirety of the race!

Big thanks to Bill, my crew chief, Kyle, my coach, and Christina and Leiana as my constant inspiration of getting out every single day and doing what I love.