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!

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