Wednesday morning I logged into my work e-mail like I always do. There was a message from a colleague inviting people out to cheer on the burro race in a small mountain town not terribly far from home. After a bit of casual banter back and forth I figure out the long course matches my distance goal for Sunday. And the next thing I knew, I had signed up for a burro race.
Did you know you can rent a racing burro? Me neither. But the crew at Laughing Valley Ranch have been doing it for a while now. And doing it well I might add.
The course was exactly the sort of thing my coach would like to see me running. A mile or so of pavement. Some twin track through the high mountain prairie. Some weird trail in the road ditch. Some Jeep trail. Some cross tundra route finding. It had nearly everything the Colorado mountains had to offer - including topping out over 13,000 feet above sea level at the top of Mosquito Pass, and some really wet shoes due to stream crossings. I even could have spent some time in the snow had I been so inclined.
Why burro racing? Well there's a story behind all that. Legend has it that two miners struck gold at a claim on the same day. And they were fighting over who owned the claim. And the only real way to establish that would be to get down to town and register the find. The first miner there got all the gold. So they loaded up the burros and raced into town. The burro race is a sort of reinactment of that event, only we get the bonus of running up to the mine then back, and not just down into town.
There's even video of the start! I make an appearance about 1:20 in. Orange shirt, black and white hat, somewhat short and choppy stride. (kind of like a burro now that I think of it...)
The first mile of the race went nearly nothing as I expected. I had heard stories of burros blasting out of the gate. Thumper and I (the burro's name was Thumper) took off at a good clip, but nothing too fast. I was kind of feeling him out and he was kind of feeling me out. As the terrain got rougher, Thumper would slow. And that was fine with me. And we walked a bit. And then Thumper stopped.
My friend from work had explained to me that the burro was a cautious animal. If something was new, the burro was probably going to stop. Sometimes the best thign to do would be to just let the animal check things out and make a decision by itself. Well, Thumper had found a bit of leather strapping that had fallen off the saddle of one of the faster teams. And even I admit it looked kind of like a snake sitting there in the grass. Way to go Thumper! So I picked up the strap and put it in the saddle bag.
And that was pretty much the end of the fast stuff for a while. Thumper and I managed to get caught by a couple of kids. These kids had more experience than I did, and they were very nice and taught me a bit more about handling a burro. And Thumper fell in with the herd and we all kind of ran, walked, pulled, and pushed for another five miles together.
A couple times since the race I've been asked the question, "What was it like running with a donkey?" Well, best I can describe it is like running with a four year old. You go fast. You go really fast. And then you stop. The stop might be a short look at something. It might be a stop for a snack. It might be a potty stop. And then you walk a bit. And maybe you get distracted and start going the wrong way, and someone throws a fit and gets all stubborn and decides they aren't going to move for a bit. (Could be you, could be the burro.) And you just repeat that in a random sequence and that was pretty much my day. We'll get the yelling and trickery later...
As we (you know, Thumper and I) approached the turn around for the short course Thumper decided it was time to stop and get pet by some spectators. The family in the camp chairs was nice enough to ask if I minded. I just kind of laughed and said I didn't think I had much choice. I rummaged in the saddle bag and found the carrots I had stashed in there. I was going to lure Thumper away from the family the old fashioned way. As Thumper reached for the carrot and started to follow, another passing group of burros reached us. The people laughed at me. I guess they hadn't seen the carrot trick actually work much. Thumper and I fell into the new pack. Everyone was moving pretty slowly, and this was just fine with Thumper. I'm sure the burros had a discussion about how the day was going, but by now it should be ovious that I do not speak burro. So I can only assume they were laughing at me. The people started to talk a bit too. Turns out the three of them were intending to do the long course.
Now I have to admit, at this point I had resigned myself to the shorter distance. Between Thumper not being interested in running with me, and the building clouds, I didn't think there was any way going up the pass was going to be a good idea. But here was a group moving about my speed (well, Thumpers speed) and I was welcome to join in. Taking on the long course with just me and Thumper didn't sound like a good idea. But with a group, things seemed a bit more manageable. I shifted my mindset one more time. I was in it for the long haul again!
You ever get a song stuck in your head while out on the trails? Since I stopped using music it happens to me rather frequently. And on this day, the song was the theme from Raw hide, as performed by the blues brothers. You know, this one:
So I'm there humming along. And a few words slip out. Next thing I know, some others in the crew are mentioning they have the song stuck in their head too. I should probably apologize for that, but I'm not really sorry. The song was just too fitting to let go.
One of our group was Amber. Her burro was Willie. Amber was the burro racing veteran of the group and willie knew exactly what to do. On the uphill climbs, Amber would put the rope behind her hips, drop behind Willie, and he would pull her up the slope. Thumper and I had things pretty much reversed. I was in front, and I was pulling Thumper up the hills. In fact, when I would drop in behind Thumper, he would pretty much stop.
This is a bit of a problem. You're supposed to be behind the animal, and the animal is supposed to pull you up the hills and along the flats. On the downhill, you want to be in front to control the speed. No where in the list of things you're supposed to do is pull your burro for 25+ miles.
The scene was classic Colorado. The high alpine was excellent. The storm blew through with just a few minutes of light rain, and less than an hour of cloudy drizzle. There was no lightning. The flowers this year have been incredible. We even got up into just a bit of snow - though that was easily avoidable. And we topped out at Mosquito pass just over 13,000 feet above sea level.
What do a guy from New Jersey, an Iron Man from Houston, an ultra runner (can I claim that title now?), and a mom recovering from health issues have in common? Four hairy animals and a goal to make it up the pass and back down to town. I mentioned Amber and Willie. Our Iron Man was Rob. He was with Smokey. The guy from New Jersey was Randy. Randy was running with Mr. Ziffel. We were a bit of an odd group, but we got along well and helped each other finish the race.
The way back down was much of the same, only with Thumper deciding he REALLY wanted to chew on some thistles and drink from the streams that were crossing the path. Clearly, we were in no hurry. At some point on the way down Amber noticed the saddle on Willie was broken and sliding forward. Remember that leather strap that Thumper found? Well, we used that to patch up the saddle. Thumper had saved the day!
I'll skip over most of the descent. It was beautiful. It was wet with the snow melt running down the jeep road. And it was slow. The course passed through a small neighborhood of cabins and seasonal homes, and just a couple year round houses. And we were welcomed. There were unofficial aid stations that gave us and the donkeys water. There were people just hanging out in their yards cheering on the animals and their people. It was great to feel the community come together to support the Colorado tradition of burro racing.
There was a check point where the course was to make a turn and follow the paved road. Coming to this check point Amber had mentioned she was having issues with her feet and shoes, and that she had a fresh pair and a desire to swap out. I let Thumper take a great big drink at the check point. Even though a burro can go quite some time without water (I was told second only to a camel, but I haven't fact checked that.) Thumper sure was a thirsty beast today. I'm willing to guess he drank at least as much water as I did, and probably consumed more pounds of thistles and yellow flowers than any racer should eat on the course.
As Thumper continued to refuel, Amber found a good spot for shoe changing. This is when our herd splits. Two other burros had come in while I was letter Thumper do his thing, and Randy and Rob set off with them. It was a race after all. (I learned later they thought we were still together. No hard feelings. Had I been in their spot, I'm not sure I would have turned back or stopped.) Thumper and I hung out while Amber changed her shoes. We both had a snack. Even Willie was enjoying a good graze. I hung out for several reasons. First, Amber was suddenly not looking so good. Part of the spirit of the ultra running community that I love is the way people take care of each other. And I didn't feel right leaving Amber when she was hurting. A second reason I stayed with Amber is that I didn't exactly know the course back. It was different than the way we took out. And third, it was about to get dark, and she had a headlamp. I didn't. And fourth - things of this nature are so much better with company.
I don't remember the exact details of of the brief conversation when Amber stood up. I remember I asked a simple question. "Are we finishing this?" And I remember Amber's answer started with, "Let's go." So we did.
Going by the waterfowlers trick of guessing sunrise and sunset times by when you can distinguish color, I'll say the sun set as we turned off a brief piece of dirt road and fell in on a single and twin track that sort of followed a creek. Funny thing about burros. They don't run in the dark. In fact, they don't see all that well in the dark, and they'll get right up close to you. Thumper was so close to me that I forgot to take in the slack in the lead and he stepped on it a couple times. The last magestic sight of the day was when the trail rose a bit above the water and the brush along the creek and I could see the nearly full moonlight reflecting off the water. I remember staring at it a while without really recognizing what it was I was staring at when Amber mentioned it. It was a beautiful sight.
We passed the last checkpoint in the dark. Amber didn't have her headlamp turned on yet. We were still navagating by light of the moon. And it was going pretty well. We had some navigational issues leaving the last checkpoint, but we got back to where we were supposed to be. The course finished by going through a gravel pit. And in my opinion, this was the toughest part of the course. (Sure, the dark didn't help.) Heading out the far side of the gravel pit required sneaking through some rather dense undergrowth with poor footing. It was all I could do to keep Willie in my sight, and he was following Amber's light. Thumper was just being dragged along. As we started to climb, things got ugly. Amber told me I should just grab onto Willies back strap and follow that way.
That seemed like a great idea. Until Willie decided to go, and Thumper decided to stop. We were headed up a hill and the footing was loose. I was being pulled up the hill by one arm, and down the hill by the other. And I slipped. But I didn't fall. I was just hanging there, suspended in the air between two donkeys heading up a rocky slope. I quickly got my feet back under me and we finished the last of the climb. And then we were nearly to town. We followed the road. A car filled with Amber's family had come out to the main road to watch for us. And we could hear them yelling back to the rest of the folks that we were coming. And then we could hear the crowd. Amber stopped us. We got our herd organized. The goal was to make a race of it. Less than 100 yards, one left turn, and then another short straight away to the finish line.
Somehow Amber rallied. She managed to get both the burros running. So we hooted and hollered our way down the road. At the turn both burros kind of got confused, but we got them facing the right way and kept it up. We made a good show of it for the folks that came out of the bar and hotel to cheer us in. Thumper fell in behind Willie. That's where he wanted to be. And I was fine with that. Amber's kids came and ran a bit and actually scared Willie onto the sidewalk for a moment. This cause Thumper to put on the brakes. I was able to watch Amber finish with her family. And then Thumper and I got ourselves across the line.
And that's the story of my first DFL (Deak F***ing Last) finish. I'm sure it won't be my last, but it will quite likely be my most memorable.
Photo credits -
Most of the pre-race photos are mine.
I took some of the mid-race photos.
And I have to confess, the rest I lost track of the original photographers as they bounced around facebook. Most are used with permission. Some, I don't think I actually asked.
I would like to thank Rob Crane for several photos and a day of great company.
Amber - I would not have gotten my miles without you. Thank you.
Randy Pedretti, thanks for letting me crash your day. I love the tradition your family has started.
A special thank you to Jennifer Mewes for allowing me to share the finish line photo. My smile is not fake.
And thank you to GZ. This will not be my last burro race.
If you're training for a long race, at some point, the time and miles start to really get to you. It feels like work. It stops being fun. This is where a lot of people just stop. But there are ways to bust through the slump.
Lets acknowledge the main way people address this issue. You get up in the morning, you put your shoes on, and you get your miles. Doesn't matter if you want to. Doesn't matter if it isn't fun. You get the job done. This takes a mental toughness that a lot of people just can't quite get into. And the longer the race, the longer the training miles, the tougher this gets. If this describes you, you are really awesome. And a lot of people try that. They get up. They put the time in. And they burn out.
There are lots of solutions to this problem. We'll go over a few of my favorite.
Go Somewhere New
I don't care if it's a new part of town, a new trail, or a new state. A change of scenery can bring a whole new light to your training. In my case, my family went on vacation, and I packed my running shoes. I found new trails in Connecticut, I ran somewhat familiar areas on the Maine/New Hampshire border, and I went on a big run through the Presidential Range in NH in the form of the Presidential Traverse. All of this gave me something new to explore, something new to see, and a challenge I had read about and thought I might never be able to accomplish.
The trails in CT were a blast. I had seen some pictures of a state park not far from my in-laws place. So I woke up at dawn, crept out of the house to avoid waking anyone, and drove the 15 minutes to the park. These trails were incredible! Lots of rolling hills. Lots of short, steep climbs. Lots of technical rocks. It was everything i was looking for.
The roads on the ME/NH border I have run before. But I only get to run here about a week every year. So it was nice to get back out and explore the area around the lake and do some speed work.
And the presidential traverse... Well, that was simply incredible. The trails were every bit as rugged and steep as I had been told. I did not anticipate the world above treeline to be so majestic. Maybe it's just the difference between the dense forested areas below and the wide open views above the tree line, but it felt almost as if I were in another dimension.
Go. Find someplace new. Explore. It's good for you.
(Photo credit Matt Rutledge. All copyrights reserved.)
Find Some New Running Friends
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with your old running friends. I'm sure they're still awesome. I'm just saying adding a new person now and then can bring in some new energy. And if you really want to mix it up, offer to pace someone for a race, or help out a race director scout and mark a course. I've had the opportunity to do all of that this month (often in combination), and I don't regret a single minute. Running friends add smiles to your miles. This one is pretty simple. Be social. Meet people. Share the experience.
(Photo credit James B. Valdez. Used with permission. No copyright claimed or implied.)
Do Something New
OK. This is where I might need to branch off into a whole new blog entry. But here it is. Find something completely new. Maybe it's a color run. Maybe it's a bubble run, or a black light run, or a beer mile, or a naked mile... For me, it was a burro race.
As of May 29, 2012, pack burro racing is the official summer herritage sport in Colorado. (The winter sport is skiing.) Well, my training plan called for 30 miles at altitude. On a Wednesday, a guy at work sent an email about the burro race on Sunday. Turns out, that was 29 miles at altitude. So I gave it a shot. Did you know you can rent a race burro?
This is Thumper. Thuper likes hugs, being scratched between the ears, thistles, and yellow flowers.
(Photo credit Matt Rutledge. All copyright reserved.)
Knowing my solo times for efforts around that distance on similar terrain and with similar altitude gain, I went into the event rather optimistic. There weren't many signed up for the long course, and I figured if I were to finish just ahead of the middle of the herd, I might be into some prize money. Boy was I mistaken.
The biggest thing about burro racing is that it is a team sport - you and the burro are the team. If one of you has a different outlook on the objectives for the day, someone is going to be very disapointed. And in my case, Thumper (the burro) decided he was in charge and he would set the pace. What this means is I wound up pulling Thumper over 20 miles. I'm going to save the details for a race report. It really justifies its own write up. But here's a teaser.
(Photo credit Jennifer Mewes. Used with permission. No copyright claimed or implied.)
But I got my miles, and I had a blast. The finish line smile isn't just a fake for the camera. The day was a hoot. And that's the point. Get out. Find something new. Relax and smile. It makes the running easier.
And that's it. Three ways to keep the training fun. You might not have a vacation planned. You might have to work to find some people. You might not have a burro race nearby. But with a little creativity finding someplace new, finding some new people, and finding something new to do shouldn't be too hard.
On long runs year round, and on most runs in the summer heat I carry some sort of water, electrolyte drink, and food. I've used waist packs, handhelds, vests, bottle bands, and nearly every style of product you can imagine. I have had success with all of them, and a few failures.
Why a handheld? This one was a tough decision. I have been using a hydration vest all summer. It was my 50 mile race that made me think about something else. First, by the end of the run, my back felt pretty beat up, and had a few raw spots. Second, there was a section of the run where I could have dropped the vest and picked up a handheld or two and then picked things up again after about 10k of running. Only I didn't have anything to carry at the time. Additionally, for some reason I have been falling a lot this year. I was thinking the handhelds might give some cusion for my palms. And, for the really long training runs in the heat, I can use my vest and the handhelds.
I haven't had the handhelds long, but by the time you read this I will have put in about 100 miles with them. This will be everything from 4-5 mile jaunts through 20-30 mile long runs. This is enough to give me a good idea how things will perform in the heat.
Initial inspection shows the same Orange Mud quality that you may have heard about elsewhere. Top notch materials. Top quality stitching. And there are a few design aspects that caught me a bit off guard - in a happy way. The first thing I did was stick my hand in it. The crew at Orange Mud spent some time thinking this one through. The strap is wider than most I have seen, and there is a flap of material that comes over the top of the hand to help distribute load. And it all comes together to produce a really comfortable fit on your hand with a full bottle, a half full bottle, and an empty bottle. The handhelds I've used in the past felt really good with a full or empty bottle. But so far, nothing has felt good with half a bottle sloshing around. I think it's the strap and the material over the top of the hand that make it fit so well.
That black patch on the front is two pockets. Two. Made with a stretchy material. So, of course I did what any child would do. I played a little game of "what fits in the pocket?" And the answer is - a whole lot! The bigger pocket in back will hold most phones. (If you're using one of the new big ones, you're still out of luck.) Between the two pockets, you can hold several hours worth of food. I dug out a pair of my light gloves and stashed those in there. That made it hard to hold a gel as well, but I got it all in. And the best part of the whole thing? There's one of those little key hooks! I love those key hooks. They really should be on everything. As a bonus, the seams for the pockets fit my hand perfectly. I can hold the water bottle like a quarterback holds a football - finger tips on the seams.
Another little detail that pleased me greatly is the bottom strap that holds the bottle. This is a piece of nice reflective material. The bottom seems like an odd spot at first, but it works. If you're striding well, it will provide a flash both in front, and behind you. If you're dragging and your arms are low, it will flash behind you. And if you're drinking, it clearly flashes right in front of your face.
The bulk of the handheld is some sort of really high quality nylon. It is naturally stiff enough to hold it's shape. It holds bottles just tight enough that they don't flop, but you can still pull them out without too much issue. The mouth of the bottle opening has no real reinforcement and no real closure or cinch. And I'm not sure it needs it. It can be a bit of a struggle to get the bottle back in, but nothing too terrible. If I can manage it after 20 miles with cold, clammy hands, it's workable. (Cold in July? It is if you're above 10,000 feet!)
Can it really be that good? Well, mostly yes. The only criticism I have for the product is actually the bottle it comes with. This is a pretty standard sized 22oz Purist bottle from Specialized. (Same basic bottle as the RunJunkEes bottle) And I'm not a big fan of the spout. It's difficult to pull open, and difficult to tell if it's open when giving it just a quick glance. This is not the same spout used on the RunJunkEes bottles. But it works just fine.
And that's it. That's my criticism. The spout on the 3rd party bottle could be improved.
Without meaning to, today I gave the handhelds the ultimate test. I took a digger. We won't get into why I fell, but I'm not badly injured. It's just skin. It'll heal. Holding two handhelds did exactly what I was hoping - my palms are in great shape. Not long after my fall, I had a chance to stop at a stop light for a major intersection and take a close look at myself and my gear. After about 100 miles and one fall, there is one little scuff with a few frayed nylon threads where the bottle in my left hand slid in the dirt under the weight of my body and moving at a fairly good clip. And it looks as if both handhelds now have a couple stitches that might be a bit loose or popped. I've seen new products in stores that looked worse than these things do after 100 miles of use and a good fall. Of course the new ones don't have dirt and mud on them.
Like many of my fellow RunJunkEes, when I heard Dan was partnering with Orange Mud to make a bag, I was excited. Orange Mud has a reputation for quality, and that always gets me looking forward to the UPS truck.
OK. It's another laptop bag. Big deal. Except, this one is a bit different. First, the internal material is orange. I cannot explain how many hours of my life I have spent digging through laptop bags with black interiors looking for small black items. The orange eliminates that 100%.
I gave the bag a very close look inspecting the quality. I don't remember the last time I saw stitching of this nature. There wasn't a single lose thread out of the box.
So what fits in it? Lots of stuff. I live off one of two laptops - the one for my day job, and the one for all the fun stuff. I started with the laptop for fun stuff. This is an HP Pavilion E115NR. It's a bit on the smaller side with only an 11.6" display - and a few stickers. :-) This thing fit in the sleeve as if it were designed to go there. And there was still room for all sorts of stuff. I was able to fit in my iPad, a folder of papers, the latest copy of Ultrarunning Magazine... This bag seems to follow the old adage "A place for everything and everything in its place." There was a pocket for the power supply, a few spots for pens, and the top pouch on the shoulder is the perfect size for a couple cell phones; even some of the bigger ones, but probably not the biggest.
The other laptop I use is a larger HP model. It did not fit in the sleeve. But it did still fit in the bag and the rest of the pockets and features still worked. No sweat.
The fit of the bag on my body took some getting used to. But that's because I have become accustomed to this older, somewhat floppy laptop bag. And the design is just completely different than this Orange Mud bag. Once I got the strap the length I liked, the bag just sits on my body. There's some movement, but no swinging like a traditional laptop bag. And the wide straps and messenger design do a great job of spreading out the load across enough of your body to be comfortable.
On the front of the pack there are a few "tacti-cool" loops, and one plastic D ring. The plastic ring is the perfect size for a small carabiner holding a water bottle. I'm not sure what I would use the other loops for, but I'm sure when the time comes I'm going to be glad they are there.
I look forward to seeing how this bag performs long term.
Well, 52.24 if we're to split hairs.
That's how far I ran Saturday. In one shot. Up and over a ski hill. Several times. On purpose. It's still kind of sinking in. I did it. All of it. I finished.
When I started my quest for ultra running, these were all just numbers on a training plan. A simple mileage progression. I don't think it occurred to me that I might actually be running the numbers on the page. Signing up for a race is so simple, it's almost like it never happened.
But there I was in a hotel room at 3:00AM getting ready to toe the line for the second milestone race of my season. (The first was my 50K.) I trained. I tapered. I was as ready as I was going to be. And I even slept a bit the night before.
If I haven't said it before, the thing I like best about the ultra running community is a sense of family at every event. This was clear as the runners started to assemble at the starting line. There was relaxed chit chat, fresh coffee, and a rather relaxed and welcoming feel that is missing from the majority of road and shorter trail races I have attended. Don't get me wrong! I enjoy the excited buzz of group of 5k runners about to throw it down fast and furious, or the excitement in the starting chutes for a marathon. But this is just different.
I think this is due to the distance and terrain. Attacking a ski hill like a 5k is a recipe for disaster and those three dreaded letters - DNF.
The pre-race briefing was held in the dark. It ended with a simple, "I think everyone is here. Let's go ahead and line up over at the start." Unlike road races, there was no mad rush to be the first person to the line. In fact, there was a bit of a rush to be the last person to the line - to the back of the pack. No one wanted to go out too fast. No one was here to showboat. The first 10k wasn't the race. There was plenty of time to get it all worked out.
Like anyone racing this year, I had been watching the weather closely. It's been a wild spring. And a few days before the race, spring ended. Summer was here. I can run through the worst weather with the best of them. Lacing up and getting out in below zero snow storms is no big deal for me. Rain? Not an issue. But heat... Well that is enough to make me want to die. And that's what the forecast had in store. Lots of hot. If we were lucky, one of the small "localized" afternoon storms would roll through.
The course was a giant lollipop. We all started with the loop - a fairly mellow, but quite pretty greenbelt trail (actual single track dirt) through a small mountain community. We wore headlamps for the first half or so. The sun was rising, and we might be able to do without the artificial light, but the local rodent population had done a number on the first section of trail, and destroying an ankle in the dark in the first 5k just doesn't sound like fun to anyone.
I skipped the first un-manned aid station. If I really needed that stop at four miles in, I was probably in over my head. We finished up the loop and landed back at the start/finish and the first manned aid station. I was still loaded with supplies from the start. My goal was to top off the bottles and go. After a brief moment of confusion looking for my bag to grab a replacement for the snack I ate and my sunscreen this would prove to be the fastest aid station of the day.
And we were off onto the "stick" of the lollipop - a half mile of pavement that lead to the single track that would take us well onto the ski hill. It didn't take long for me to catch up to the runners in front of me. Chisholm, and Chris. Chris and I talked a bit on the loop. He was out doing his first 50k. His only goal was survival, and he was smiling and just chugging along at a comfortable pace. Chisholm and I slowly worked past Chris. It's the friendly banter on the trail that you really don't get much in the road races. But when you are power hiking a big climb, a few friendly words to someone else suffering the same hill can do a lot to help you disassociate with your current misery. Chisholm and I swapped spots a few times.
I was in front when the single track emerged onto the cleared ski slope. My head was mostly down and I was ready to just keep going. But the deer in front of me had something else in mind. Since I need a break anyway, I stopped and watched. Chisholm wasn't but a few seconds behind and I wanted him to see these guys with their fuzzy antlers. And it's a good thing I waited. As my new friend emerged from the trees, he told me I was headed the wrong way. I was following the path of least resistance. The course, however, did not.
The course was going up what I will call "The Death Hill." My elevation chart shows this climb as nearly vertical. And it felt like it. To add excitement, if you weren't careful where you put your feet, you would slide back down the hill. I wanted a helmet. Crampons and an axe were also on my mind.
Chisholm talked me through the climb. I know I attacked it too fast. But it gave me a chance to get to the point where the angle eased off and make a little joke. "Good news! There's more hill up here!" I'm still not sure how long that climb was. It couldn't have been more than a half mile. But it felt forever. And then it was over and the angle became reasonable and we were able to more easily climb to the high point of the course - another un-manned aid station situated mostly in the woods, in the shade. We topped off a bottle and continued onward. After a short down, then up, the dirt road section plummeted down. I was working hard to stay with Chisholm. He was a course veteran and knew what was coming. Pacing off him seemed like a great idea. But reigning in the hill wasn't what I had trained to do, and it was starting to make my legs feel tight. I said goodby to my new friend, and used gravity to cover some ground.
Part of the appeal of trail running is the scenery. And this course did not disappoint. The valleys in New Mexico are simply stunning. And if you find yourself on a good vantage point it is easy to get lost staring at the countryside below you. And the back half of this hill was filled with those vantage points. (The front of the hill was too, I was just too busy trying not to fall on The Death Hill to really appreciate them.)
As the course continued on a jeep trail where the main road ended I started to see other runners headed back in. There were lots of smiles and lots of encouragement. The runners headed back in were climbing and had a long way to go until the top. I was finishing up a six mile descent and feeling pretty good when I rolled into the manned aid station at this end of the course. I was about 19 miles into it here and feeling great. I refilled my bottles and my bladder, and grabbed a snack off the tables. The volunteers offered sunscreen, and I thought that was a great idea. This stop didn't feel too long. I didn't feel I lingered. I took a deep breath and turned to climb back up to the summit.
This was the most enjoyable climb of the whole day. There were people everywhere. The first three miles or so had the remaining 100 mile, 50 mile, and 50k runners heading into the aid station. The last three miles had the 25k runners heading out to the turn around. My plan was to stop at the unmanned water jugs, top off again, and sit briefly to have a snack before heading down the hill. My training had shown me that if I don't eat before a big descent, odds were good I was going to wind up face down in the dirt. As I opened my snack a couple of runners came into the water stop. One of them was Tara. She was nursing a knee injury and just trying to make the best of the day. I shared my snacks with her, and we went opposite directions.
I made an effort to move quickly on the steep, loose section of The Death Hill. That was dumb. I can ski some steep stuff. I was not wearing skiis. It didn't take long for me to scare myself to a crawl. You've seen that video of Killian bombing down the mountain? I was kind of the opposite of that. But I made it down in one piece, and was still going faster than the trip up. It was as I was dropping into the treed section that I realized I hadn't seen anyone else in a while. I let my mind wander long enough too figure out Tara was the last person I had seen. My toe snagging on a rock or root jarred me out of thinking. I didn't go down, but it was pretty close. I was able to recenter myself and continue.
The trip and recenter cycle continued longer than I should admit. Finally, I quit trying to run and settled into a fast hike down the hill. I figured getting down without falling was better than risking injury. Not being able to run this section started to hit me a bit mentally. I was on my fuel and hydration plan as much as the terrain would allow. There was no real reason for me to be falling all over the place. Yet here I was. Trying to work it out, my foot caught again - while I was walking this time. The treed section was only about 3 miles long as I reached the bottom the trail got a bit hard to follow and I had to stop a few times to make sure I was in the right spot. I nearly missed the one important turn to get me back towards the base area. But I knew I wasn't supposed to go into the bike area, so it was pretty easy to know there was a problem. Thankfully I only needed to back track about six feet and then work my way up a short, steep wall to get up to the condo neighborhood section. One short climb, and I had a good half mile of paved downhill into the base.
I rolled into the base at the half way point. My watch said 26 miles and change. Looked like this would be the 52 mile 50 miler. I suspected there would be some bonus miles. I just didn't know how many. And now I had an idea. As I rolled into the base, there was a bit of a crowd. They cheered from the shade of their RV's and tents. The race director called out my name as I hit the tables. I remember smiling and waving. The next section was the opening 10k again. I didn't need much from the aid station to make it through. The very nice ladies filled my bottles with tailwind. I ate a salted potato and grabbed two little turkey/cheese tortilla roll ups to snack on as I headed out.
I walked out of the aid station taking a mental inventory. I was at the half way mark. Lungs felt good. Legs felt pretty good. It was starting to get hot. In fact, the first mile here was on blacktop. And it felt REALLY hot. I started to much on my tortilla wrap. If I wasn't sweating and breathing hard these two wraps would have been all of four bites. But I had this challenge of breathing and chewing going on, so I had to take smaller bites. As I was chewing, breathing, power hiking, sweating, and trying to figure out how I was doing I seemed to have overloaded my capacity. A chunk of tortilla got stuck in my throat. No biggie. A drink would wash it out. Nope... No biggie. A good cough will get it out. Nope... Wait... What's that? What is my stomach doing? No! Not that! I need those calories and fluids! And my stomach put them on the pavement. Oh well. At least the tortilla was out of my throat and I was feeling pretty good.
A few minutes later I went back to trying to eat. And the same thing happened. And I was out of easily reachable food. No biggie. Five miles left and I had plenty of tailwind in the bottles. I can get more food back at the base.
Did I mention it was really starting to warm up? The first two miles here were all in direct sunlight. There was no relief. Running was hard. I was melting. I slowed to a grinding pace. The turn into the trees couldn't come soon enough. Only when the turn came, it wasn't really any cooler. I trudged on. Melting. Sinking physically and mentally.
The unmanned water jug was an incredible relief. Just a little bit of cool water did good things for me mentally. But it didn't help the body much. The next section was a bit downhill, and I was able to put together a good run. And then I was back onto the pavement for the last mile or so to the base. It went about as you might expect. Slow and hot.
At this point the aid station had changed. It was staffed by people who had finished the 50k and were hanging out. I felt like a race car in for a pit stop. Bottles were taken out of my vest for me and filled. My bladder was taken out of my vest and filled. The spare bottle I pulled out of my drop bag was taken from my hand and filled before I could even finish the sentence. They did leave me to change my own socks, but the new socks were taken out of my bag for me. I stood up and walked to the sunscreen guy and he bombed me with the spray sunscreen in a way that I had never experienced.
I don't remember how far I was from the base, I think I may have been nearly past the condos and into the woods when I realized the food I had taken out of my drop bag hadn't made it into my vest. In the confusion of all the help, it had gotten missed. Given the stomach situation, I didn't think I could have eaten it anyway, but I really wanted to have it. I took a mental inventory. I was pretty sure I had a fruit cup buried in my pack. And maybe something else. And I had plenty of tailwind to make it to the unmanned station.
I was around the 35 mile mark. Well past my previous longest run ever. And I was trying to get into the deep part of the woods where things were shaded, there was a creek, and everything was a marvelous escape from the heat. I was moving well, but not exactly running. Part of this was due to the hill. Part was me not wanting to push to hard. And a big part was just me enjoying being in the shaded woods and being out of the heat. But that section was only about three miles, and all too quickly I came out into the clearing of the ski trail and turned to face The Death Hill for a second climb. This time in the full sun.
Just as I was about to really get into the climb, the ski lift hauling mountain bikers (and a few race supporters!) to the top stopped. Just like in winter time, there was a collective groan. I looked up at the people above me and said loudly, "Don't look at me; I didn't break it!" And they all laughed. This was an important measure of my mental state. If I can make jokes (even bad ones!), I'm doing good enough.
So, I climbed. Slowly. Carefully. With sweat dripping everywhere. Another good sign. I was still sweating. As I went up, I tried to form a plan for the rest of the run. I was going to walk across the summit to the water jugs where I would sit and dig through my pack to see what food I had.
At the jugs, just as I was topping off a bottle there was Tara. Tara was doing the 25k. She should have been finished a long, long time ago. We talked a bit. Turns out she missed the turn around and may have even made it all the way to the bottom where the aid station was. She was suddenly nursing a knee injury, trying to make the best of the day, and was now on the course a whole lot longer than expected. We chatted a bit as I found my fruit cup. I think Tara left first. I remember sitting by myself and getting ready for six miles of mostly down. As I left the aid station, it was silent. The noise from the ski lift was quiet. Tara had gone. And for some reason, I started crying a little.
It didn't last long, but it was pretty intense. I wasn't sure I wanted to be there any more. And I wasn't sure if the race director was going to let me finish. It was getting late. Real late. But I was on the downhill dirt road and I was making pretty good time. My only goal was to get to the next aid station. From there, I would either be stopped, or I would turn around and go finish my first 50 mile run. And that settled the emotions enough. I was going to the aid station. From there, it would work out one way or another.
As I neared the aid station, there was the unmistakable sound of gunfire. I could see a truck and some people. A closer look showed a good target across a pasture. The best news is they clearly were not shooting at the aid station. There were a few runners here. One guy doing the 100 mile and another doing the 50. I had seen them both earlier today. The 50 mile guy was Joe (I think) from D.C. and he remembered me and gave me a hello. He and the 100 mile runner - Chris, were making good time up the hill. The friendly hello was wonderful. And I made another terrible joke. I'm not dead yet. I just smell like it. It got a chuckle. So those two were doing fine as well.
It felt like forever, but there was another 100 mile runner. I don't remember his name, but I watched him speak with a race official in a truck, and I crossed the road to give him a high five as we passed. Another huge boost.
Again, it felt like forever passed, and I saw another runner. He was doubled over. I was not the only one experiencing stomach bloating and cramps. I don't remember his name (Joel, maybe?), but he was another 50 mile runner from ABQ. He was well enough to still joke and laugh a bit. Behind him was a woman running with poles on her pack. And she was flying compared to the rest of us. There was a brief nod hello, and she was gone. All business. And it was great to see someone doing so well so late in the day.
About now the weather had given us a break. There was a breeze, some clouds, a few rain drops, and a bit of thunder to go with it. And it all felt great. I appreciated every drop of rain that hit me. I spread my arms and let the wind wick moisture off my skin and clothes. The thunder? Well, I wasn't by the ski lift and I wasn't the highest thing in the area, so that would probably work out fine.
I made the final turn and could see the top of the aid station tent. I was nearing the moment of truth. The question asked was, "What can I get you?" I answered with a question of my own: Have I missed the cutoff?
The answer was no. There had been no word to hold people up at the aid station. I breathed a sigh of relief. This was the first time I knew I was going to finish this.
The aid station stop took a bit longer than I wanted. The help at the last stop jammed up my bladder a bit and it took some work to get it open. I spent too long looking at food I knew I wasn't going to eat. There was a warm, flat coke that I slammed. That felt pretty good, so I had some grapes. I had two full bottles of tailwind, and about 60 ounces of it in my pack. I had about nine miles to go. I wasn't going to risk vomiting again, so I left the rest of the food and just went.
On the way out I passed two more 50 mile runners coming into the aid station. One wouldn't leave on foot. She looked worse than I felt.
I focused on the sections. First, climb back up to the road. Next, run this flatter section. At the climb, power hike it. This climb was big and seemed to never end. First time through there were people all around. This time it was just me. I heard a car roll up behind me. I got over and waved, but the car didn't pass. I looked over to see a couple of faces I recognized as being part of the race directors crew. I felt my stomach drop. Were they sweeping the course? Was I done? The window rolled down, and I heard a question, "How are you doing Matt?" Yes, my name was on my bib, but they all made a point to know who was out there and to call us by name as often as possible. And that was awesome. I smiled despite my fear of being told to get in the car. The answer that came to my mouth was paraphrased from the movie 100: Head, Heart, Feet. "Everything hurts, but I'm in a pretty good mood about it."
She asked another question that I really wasn't ready to answer: So, you're going to finish your first 50 miler?
Yes. Yes I am.
Turns out they were out marking the course for the 100 mile runners that would be running through the night. There were glow sticks that needed to be put out. No one was getting swept today.
The car pulled away and I was left with my thoughts and the sound of my footsteps grinding on the gravel road. Crunch. They aren't going to pull me. Crunch. I'm like 1.5, maybe two miles from the top of the hill. Crunch. Crunch. Wow. Crunch. So... I just need to finish this climb. Crunch. Regroup at the water station. Crunch. Creep down The Death Hill. Crunch. Make it through the woods alive. Crunch. And... then it's like a half mile of easy pavement to the finish. Crunch. Of my first 50 mile. Crunch.
And that's pretty much how it went. I stopped at the water station and enjoyed a cup of cool water and re-centered myself. I decided I was going to break this part up into smaller chunks.
First up was The Death Hill. My goal was to simply make it down without falling. And I did. I moved slowly and deliberately.
After the death hill was a mellow downhill twin track through the grass under the ski lift. I was able to run this without much issue. The tire tracks were pretty smooth.
One right turn to bring me into the woods. The sun was getting low. The shadows would be deep. I briefly thought of my headlamp that I had for the first six miles stashed away in my drop bag. The woods I split up into a few different sections based on terrain, things I saw, and what the trail did. I didn't want to fall. That was my main concern. Falling and getting hurt would be a stupid reason to DNF. The top section was mostly walked due to partially hidden rocks in the grass in and along the trail. No biggie. No falls. The upper switchbacks went nicely. Run the straights, walk the turns. No falls. The middle section wasn't switchbacky, but had some turns and longer straights. Same strategy. Stream crossing section - same strategy. The rocks across the stream were perfect for running across. Under the bike bridge, lower switchbacks. Same strategy. Run the straights. Walk the turns.
With each step, I was getting closer to the finish. With each step I started feeling better. The first place 100 mile runner was coming up the trail. (Chris - he would set the course record at 26:45 or so.) He stepped aside and let me "run" through with a smile and kind words of encouragement.
A few more turns and the second place 100 mile finisher and his pacer were working up the trail. This was a wide spot. The pacer went to one side and the runner to the other. I took the middle and gave them a hoot as I cruised through. I wanted to give them a high five, but they were carrying poles and that just wasn't a safe proposition. (Wait, exactly how did you lose your eye running a 50 miler?)
I got turned around at the funky climb just before the condos. I missed the turn again and started heading into the bike park. I thought of the 100 mile runners. On their next pass through here they would be in the dark. If it were me, I doubt I would find the way out at this point.
But it wasn't quite dark yet, and I was able to backtrack a few feet and find the landmarks I tried to remember from the last time through. One short, steep effort and I was on the dirt road by the condos. Just a bit more up. I power hiked the gentle hill partly because that's about all I had, and partly to recenter, and rehydrate. I was starting to get really excited now. I could feel my pulse race. As the angle tipped downward I started to run again. I turned off the feeling in my body. Shut up calves. We're doing this. I don't care hamstrings. Time to finish. And so on with every ache that came up.
One of the mountain bike racers gave me a yell from a bit away, "Keep going brah! Looking great!" I gave him a fist pump in the air. Continuing to pick up the pace as the downhill carried me closer to the finish line; and it wasn't long until I heard the whir of bearings coming up on me. It was my new mountain biking fan. He pulled up beside me and we had a bit of a conversation:
Bike: You're almost there man. Looking strong!
Me: Thanks. I'm feeling really strong right now.
Bike: Keep it going. You're going to finish this.
Me: Bike in with me. It isn't far.
Bike: No brah. This is yours. But I'm going to podium tomorrow just for you.
He gave me a hoot and turned off into his condo. And I was at the last turn. I started to pick it up. My head was on a swivel as I came to the main road. There were no crossing guards at this point. I was traveling faster than I had been all day and really didn't want to stop. There was one car a ways off, so I darted into the street, and across. About this time the people in the parking lot started to cheer, and I dug deeper and started to kick it in as best I could. Into the parking lot (don't trip!) and to the finish chute. As I line up the chute Chisholm is on the far side with a camera. I raise my arms in celebration. (It felt like they were a whole lot higher than the picture shows...)
Victory. 52.24 miles was my recorded distance. And the last couple miles felt really good.
I wandered around the base area a minute gathering myself. The people there were offering me things - water, food, a chair, a sponge. I took a drink and found my drop bag. I took out the damp washcloth someone told me to pack. (Brilliant!) and wiped down my face and neck. It felt wonderful.
It was about that point the race director wandered over and asked me if I was ready for my stuff. There was a nicely printed certificate of completion, a medal of sorts, and a small, simple, wooden trophy. I'm not sure how long I stared at the trophy before I recognized the words. Third overall male. It seems in the middle of the day, when it was hot and I was suffering several other runners were also hot and suffering. Suffering to the point that they decided 50k was enough for the day. By showing up and enduring some discomfort and suffering to finish what I said I was going to finish, I earned my first podium. Ever. It's safe to say it felt nothing like I expected. There was no shoulder to shoulder duel with a rival. There was no real fanfare. Just a nice simple trophy to commemorate a nice simple day.
It wasn't until the next day that I noticed the medal had a quote from Thoreau on the back.
"The moment my legs began to move, my thoughts began to flow."
Race morning started very, very early with a 3:45 alarm. I had all of my gear set out the night before. All that was left was getting dressed and the last minute decisions as the coffee brewed. The forecast was trending warmer than predicted, so I dressed based on that.
And there was a rumble. No. Not from the sky. From my stomach. This was not good. That which happened happened fast and furious. It was like that scene from Dumb and Dumber with the turbo-lax.
Let me tell you, of all the possible ways to start race day for your first ultra, this isn't something that I had even considered. And here it was, two hours until start time, and I was way negative in terms of calories and hyrdation. So I finished getting dressed, finished packing, poured a coffee to go and drove the hour to the start.
Coffee? Yup. That's my typical morning. I was too tired to realize what I was doing. I should have mixed up a liter of my caffinated Skratch that I had been saving for recovery. I spent most of my pre-race time in the porta-potty. (To those with whom I shared my muffins, I used the hand sanatizer!)
I love Weather Underground. They let you choose weather stations near you, or near where you plan to be, and the predictions tend to be pretty dang accurate. Today was no exception. The start was cold enough to justify gloves. And I did not regret the long sleeve shirt. The first three and a half miles to the first (far) aid station went much as planned. I forced myself to start far in the back so I would have to work my through the crowd. This is an exellent way for me to not go out too fast the first mile. But the crowd was small. I managed to get through fairly quickly and settled into a nice pace that may have been just a *touch* too fast, but not dangerous.
At the far aid station the course goes up the hill and climbs for nearly a mile. Having pre-run the course, I knew what to expect. I knew when I would run, and when I would walk/hike. And I was able to maintain that plan for 2 laps. The corresponding mile of down I had planned to bomb as fast as possible. And I was able to maintain that for two laps. Something happened... Shortly after finishing lap two my stomach bloated. Bad. I tried some of everything I had packed. Everything made it feel equally bad. Walking hurt. Running hurt. Hiking up didn't feel too bad, so I did a lot of that. Running down hurt a lot.
Suddenly, I was no longer running happy.
I admit, while my goals for my first 50k were modest (1: Finish. 2: Beat the storms) I did have a rough time goal in mind. And the downhills were a key component to that. The course had nearly two miles of down and I had counted on making the most of those to come in where I wanted. And suddenly that hurt my stomach too much to follow through. The last two laps were going to be rough.
Triathletes have a term The Pain Cave. This is generally reserved for their home gym which usually contains a treadmill and their bike trainer. Maybe some weights. I have my own Pain Cave. It's really small. In fact, it's the few inches between my ears. And I was spending a lot of time DEEP in my Pain Cave. It's dark in there. The darkness is oddly comforting, and I can clearly see the light at the entrance to the cave. But I wasn't going towards the light. I was settling in. While I was sinking into myself I was able to maintain an outward appearance of humanity. I was checking on my fellow athletes that had slowed or stopped. I was still cheering those passing me. I was even picking up some of the trash that was likely to blow away before the sweep crews got there.
But on the inside... Oh that was a dark, scary place. And I was camped out for the long term. I exited from the Pain Cave momentarily about 1.5 miles into the final 8 mile lap. I was trying to remember the last time I had urinated and decided to step into the bushes to see a man about a horse. By now we've all seen this picture.
I was at NewCastle Brown. That's darker than the IPA, but not the Guinness color. This confused and concerned me. My hydration was 100% as planned. One bottle of tailwind per loop, and odd sips from the bladder as I needed. This was about the time I realized just how bad the pre-race events were. The damage there had been done. Now I was trying to avoid hitting the Guinness mark on the chart. I worked the last 1.5 or so miles to the far aid station. During the run, I was deep in my cave. I hardly remember the physical run into the tent. Based on past trips through the aid station, I had figured the guys working there had some ultra experience. So I decided to ask them about my situation.
The three guys shared an awkward look. I'm still not sure if they were just not prepared for such a question or if my situation was worse than I thought. The first to speak pulled me out of the Pain Cave a bit and made me laugh. "Well, you still managed to go, so it can't be all that bad." Truth. I was able to make it happen. The laugh eased the tension and the typical aid station chit chat re-started. Time to start pushing fluids. I was "only" about 4.5 miles from the finish. I decided to sit for a minute at the aid station and drink one full bottle of water, and refill my hydration bladder. (Which was surprisingly empty!) As the nice man was filling the bladder he mentioned that I didn't want to sit too long. I didn't want to stiffen up. This had been in the back of my mind, but it was nice to hear it from someone else. I finished off the bottle, packed away the bladder, refilled the bottle, and headed out.
The fourth hike up to the high point was nothing at all like the first. There was no running. Even the slight downhill in the middle was walked. I even stopped to pick up some more trash. I was receeding into the cave. At the top I caught up to someone who was walking. I recognized this man. I had seen him every lap near the turn around. He had spent all day about five minutes in front of me, and now he was hardly moving. I did the human thing. I slowed whatever roll I had and I checked on him. His name was Josh. His knee was hurt. He wasn't going to drop. He was going to walk it off. No. He didn't want a cookie. So off I went. I pushed the downhill as hard as my stomach would let me. And the stomach sent me back into my cave. I was focusing on the fifteen feet in front of me. Everything else dropped out of my vision. I was driven. Focused on finishing this thing. I powered through the rolling hills. Hiked where I had to. Ran where I could. One last steep, gut wrenching down, one right turn, and very slight rollers to the turn around spot with the drop bags and the trail through to the finish.
As I neared the tent with the drop bags I saw the people there start to rouse. As I got closer, the movement intensified. I was starting to make out familiar shapes and colors. But there were too many of them. I was pretty sure I saw my oldest daughter wearing my race shirt. (I had set it out for her.) And there were other kids that couldn't have been mine, even though my brain wasn't convinced of that. And there were a couple of grown ups who were excited to see me. I admit I didn't really recognize either of them when I first saw them. Still a ways out, my breathing began to get ragged and catch in my throat a little bit. My eyes started to cloud with tears. They were pulling me out of my cave and I wasn't sure I wanted to go.
I didn't slow as I ran through the aid station. I wanted to acknowledge the friends and kids who had come to cheer me in. But it just wasn't an option. Stopping or slowing now meant the finish line would never be crossed. So I shouted. I don't know exactly what I said, but it was something along the lines of, "OK! Let's go!" And they all started to go with me. As I crossed the timing mat at the far end of the aid station I saw a very friendly smile on the timering volunteers face. She said, "You've certainly got a lot of help finishing this!"
And that was when I was ripped from my cave. I was thrust back into the light. My oldest daughter was running behind me. I could hear her giggle (she seems to always laugh while she runs) and hear her sign flapping as she went. There was a little boy I didn't know trying real hard to stay in front with me. My friend and fellow RunJunkEe Melissa was next to me. She fell in step and picked up the pacer role without me even noticing. Somewhere not far behind was Kristi, a new friend and fellow RunJunkEe and her daughter.
From the turn around timing mat to the finish line was about a quarter mile. It took less than two minutes. But it felt like an hour. I still wasn't used to being in the light. I could feel the gravel in my shoes. I could feel the sun on my skin. I could feel the fatigue in my muscles. But I wasn't slowing. I wasn't walking. I was going to finish this now. With Melissa pacing I had someone to speak with. So I said the words that had been in my head the last six hours. They don't need to be repeated here. It's safe to say they weren't very polite words. There was a small rise to the finish. Having run it before the race, I knew it was no more than five feet of vertical. But as I stared it down after 30 miles with the inflatable finish line in the background that little rise looked like Mt. Everest. So I did what any tired, weak, broken, borderline clinically dehydrated runner would do. I picked up the speed. I drove my knees forward. I drove my elbows back.
Sometimes I have a dream where I am running and I turn into a cheetah, a wolf, or some four legged monster. And then I'm cruising along the ground and things start to blur. Somehow I go faster, and start to fly. That's what this sprint into the finish felt like. I haven't looked at my data to see if I can tell just how fast that part went. I don't want to. Because what feels like a sprint after 30 miles is probably pretty laughable.
When I started, I had two goals. 1) Finish. 2) Beat the storm. And I nailed them both. The storm was early. I was late. That one was close. While I had better time in mind, I'm not all that sad to have missed it. I now recognize how the deck was stacked against me. It's a miracle I finished at all.
A couple days later, and things still haven't sunk in. I ran a 50k. I'm in the ultra runners club. Even saying it here it doesn't feel real. But I have the medal. My name is on the results sheet. There are a few pictures. I think the problem is I know this isn't my goal. Sure, it's a great big thing. But it is just a stepping stone on the way to even bigger things. As such, I am having difficulty celebrating it for the victory it is. But it's sinking in. I'm feeling better about it, even if my stomach still isn't quite right two days later.
I remember two things about the finish line. 1) There was no one there. This was not a Rock and Roll marathon. There was the lady with the medals, and the guy taking off the shoe chip. 2) It was incredibly loud. Or maybe that was just my head ringing. Through the din, I heard my youngest yelling for me and my wife cheering. I am sad to admit that I don't remember seeing them as I crossed, and I don't remember when I was able to hug them. I'm sad because without the support of my wife and the understanding of the kids none of this would even be possible.
But in the end, there's a smile and a medal.
You've heard about this whole trail running thing. You're curious, maybe even downright interested. And you want to give it a try. But where to start?
Well, we can quickly break that down into two simple steps:
1) Find a trail.
2) Run it.
Some of you will have stopped reading at this point and are off on the trail. And those folks will probably be fine, and probably won't be eaten by big foot. Because I'm pretty sure big foot is a vegetarian. But if you're still reading, you're probably hoping for a little more.
If you read the mainstream articles about trail running, many of them seem centered around the gear. Since the mainstream magazines are sponsored by gear companies, that makes sense. This article will touch on gear, but won't be centered around it.
Lets start with the definition of trail. I have discovered that this word means lots of things to lots of different people and the definition of what a trail looks like will have some regional twists. So, lets say a trail is a "more natural" path through a less developed area, often with a "softer" surface. This may be a poorly maintained piece of asphalt. It may be a beautifully groomed ribbon of hard pack gravel. Or it may be a piece of single track with all sorts of rocks and roots and other neat trail terrain. If you're used to roads and sidewalks, you'll know it's a trail because it should be a bit removed from where most vehicles can go.
(Photos copyright SlimSidePhotos (http://slimsidephotos.com/ or find slimsidepics on instagram) and used with permission.)
And some of you are looking at those pictures and thinking, "Whoa. I don't have anything like that where I'm at." And you might not. But some regional trails look a lot more tame. Take the following as an example.
(Pictures copyright Elizabeth Oviedo Robinson and used with permission.)
In some areas, that counts as trail. Roll with it. Enjoy what you have. Some of my most enjoyable running miles have been with good friends on a path very similar to that.
So how about some tips for getting out, and getting back safely?
1) Slow down. No, you don't have to run slow on trails (check out Kaci Lickteig, she screams through the dirt!) but until you get used to the ground not always being in the same spot it's just a good idea. Besides, when you slow down you get to appreciate nature a little more.
2) Step ALL the way over whatever that is in the trail. Make sure you get BOTH feet safely over. Trails have something that roads and sidewalks just don't - a technical factor. That is to say that some trails are more difficult to move over than others. There are things that may try to trip you, or make you slip. I should probably be ashamed at how often I fall...
3) Learn your local rules. This is the part that gets tricky. There are some basic rules that apply pretty much everywhere, like "Leave No Trace" and "Pack it in, pack it out." Then there are a slew of rules that vary by region and trail system. Know who has the right of way. Usually it's the horses, then the people walking, then the people running, then the bikes. Know what the local policies are for muddy trail conditions. If a trail is marked as closed, please respect the sign. Most importantly, if something isn't clear, feel free to contact your local land manager and ask. The folks I've spoken with in the various land managment organizations have always been very helpful and open to questions. Just be respectful.
OK. Now gear. I see all this trail running gear. What is really needed? Why? What does it do?
First thing first - shoes. Do you need trail shoes? It depends. First, if you're just going to give it a try and see what the hype is all about, you probably don't need trail shoes unless your regular road shoe resembles a racing flat. If your local trails tend to be pretty smooth and pretty well maintained, you can probably work with a road shoe. After running a few trails, if you still like it you can take a trip to the shoe store and see what they have.
The more technical trails tend to eat road shoes pretty quickly. And many trail shoes are made with a softer rubber compound in the sole and will wear out more quickly on the roads.
Believe it or not, trail shoes are pretty similar to road shoes. They consider all the same functionality and body mechanics. There are a couple differences though. The first is the tread pattern. Trail shoes tend to have a more "aggressive" tread pattern. Just like that Jeep in the parking lot with the big scary tires, trail shoes are meant to help get better traction. Another difference is what is known as a "rock plate." Not all trail shoes have this, but many do. It is simply a reinforced part of the shoe that protects the bottom of the foot from some of the rougher and sharper parts of the trail. In my mind, those are the two biggest differences between trail shoes and road shoes, and also the two biggest benefits to trail shoes for a trail environment. There are some other differences, but we'll stop there for now.
What about all that other gear?
All that other stuff? Well, as much as it pains me to say it, most of that other stuff is either a gimmick or produced to fill a specific gap. If you currently have something to carry some water and a snack, you should be OK using what you have until you really get into it. Then, the other stuff will become clear. Like the pack that will carry 100oz of fluid, a seven course meal, and a full change of clothes.
So... Those hills...
I underand that look and the questioning tone. Here's the deal. It isn't a race. It's a trail run. Sure, there might be some big hills. Go as slow as you need (up and down!) to keep it fun and safe. Even the pros will walk a hill during a race. There's no shame there. Simply walking up a really big hill can keep your heart rate right in the sweet spot and make it feel like work.
But what if I get lost?
Well, lost happens from time to time. It's always a situation we want to avoid. Sometimes turns are easy to miss. It's not uncommon for people to carry a map and compass on the trails. At a minimum, it's a great idea to try and memorize as much of the map as possible. (It will get easier with time and practice.) Know where the major roads are, and roughly how far away they might be. Find notable landmarks like mountain peaks, rivers, trail junctions, and valleys. Don't be afraid to talk to other trail users! Sure, people hit the trails for some solitude, but most of us are perfectly fine helping someone with directions.
So, are we all set to head out and do some trail running? Well, mostly. Let's pause a moment and think through some of the common sense things that should really apply to both trail and road running.
Good. Lets go for a run.
My RunJunkEe family may remember I announced around the new year that this would be the year I chased down the title of "Ultra Runner." And as part of that, I promised to share as much of the experience as I could. And this is part one of a many part story. This is in no way an attempt to stroke my own ego or call myself a badass. This is simply me sharing what it takes to make my ultra a reality.
I have been running through the winter. You've seen the pictures. I get a good ice beard. It's safe to say this is the best shape I've been in after the first week in March since my last competitive hockey season. The running has been going very, very well. My goal for January was to simply keep running and log 20-30 miles/week. (Nailed it.) February launched the first month of my training plan. This plan goes through May 2 and a 50K.
The 50K training plan looks very similar to the marathon training plans I've used before. This plan has two big differences. The first is back-to-back long runs. The idea with this is to learn to run tired. I will get to that in a bit. The second difference is the one that I have has caused me the biggest challenge - Monday rest day. This one took some mental adjusting. For as long as I can remember, Monday was the day everything started. If you have a "typical" 9-5 job, or attend school, you get this. My solution was to simply reformat the training plan a little bit. My running week now starts on Saturday with the first long run, and ends on Friday with a rest day. I understand the shift is merely something to address my mind and it doesn't change a single thing, but the way I vizualize the layout really helps the mental anguish. And that's enough.
The back to back long runs are interesting. So far they aren't quite as bad as I had expected. And in fact I seem to be able to go faster than expected. I wasn't ready for that. After 16 miles yesterday, I did 10 miles this morning starting out running down my mountain, and then five miles back up. Usually I take the trail, but today I took the road. I've done this a couple times, but this one felt great and the clock shows it as a PR on the climb. (Again, not stated to stroke my own ego. Just demonstrating what I'm going through.)
Another slight difference in the plan so far is an emphasis on hills, trails, dirt roads, and jeep roads. My usual weekday runs tend to be on either well groomed dirt roads, poorly maintained pavement, or this one piece of pretty nice road. And as the snow melts (please, let the snow melt eventually...) I will add in some very regular trail loops. My weekend long runs are supposed to focus on trails and "off road" components to better match the big events. The 50K doesn't have a lot climbing, or a lot of technical trail, but the 50M a month and a half later does, as does the 100M in September. With the road marathons the trail running was just a nice way to mix things up and keep the knees happy. With this plan, the road is to be avoided when possible. With the road marathons, most of the hill training was there to build strength and speed. Now, the hills are there to prepare me to head straight up the ski slope (both the 50M and the 100M are at ski areas).
As with my last marathon, I am taking extra steps to keep myself healthy. Part of this is addressing small, irritating pains before they become big issues. I am not heading to my usual accupuncture and massage guy. And I kind of miss him. But it's a simple matter of geography. He's 45 minutes away. I simply don't have 1.5 hours of driving in me often enough to make it worth the trips. Instead, I'm checking out a much closer chiropractic office that offers massage and "dry needling." We haven't gotten into the needles yet. I have been receiving ART treatments and minor adjustments from the chiropractor. All of this is focusing on lower body pains at the moment. The good doctor has also diagnosed yet another muscle imbalance centered on my glutes. But it's the other side this time. So I guess I worked the former weak side into a dominant side. I have also been receiving deep tissue sports massage every other week. It hurts so good...
I've been working to dial in my nutrition and hydration strategies. The cooler months are focused on finding things I can digest well while running without causing cramps or other issues. It's not perfect yet, but it's getting there. Next up is trying to figure out more precisely what I need to do in the heat. I'm confident we are on the right track and will get it figured out.
And that's the ultra training (so far) in a nutshell. To borrow a phrase from a former coworker, it's like marathon training, only more so.
It's winter. It's cold. It gets dark early. It stays dark late.
But you have a training schedule and a spring race. Or maybe you just have goals for the year.
Which ever it is, if you are like most people the tail end of winter is a huge mental challenge. There are more obstacles to your training than a spartan beast. And at the end of the day you will fall into one of two camps 1) Got it done. 2) Didn't get it done.
I'm not going to lie or gloss it over. It is mentally difficult to get out the door. Some days it's nearly impossible. I'm sure others go through the same thing. Obsessing over the weather, laying out gear, obessing over the sale ads to make sure you have the right hear options. Any little distraction explodes into an excuse to just not go.
But once you layer up, lace on the screw shoes, and actually step outside, well, it sucks. Your nose starts to freeze shut. Your glasses are so cold they pop. Everything is cold. This continues for the first half mile or so. Then it starts to come together. The chill isn't quite as bad. In fact, if you close your eyes (DON'T! Your eyelashes might freeze shut!) and ignore the cold, it might almost be like running in the fall.
And it's all attitude. You pick a goal. You make a plan. You make it a priority, and it happens. Just like most things in life, there will be obstacles. You may find yourself doing accidental snow angels in the middle of the road. But you did it. You left the house with the intention to go for a run. And that's enough. Just getting out with the intention of going for a run. That is usually the most difficult part. Everything after that is... just running.
The same applies to treadmill runners. Running outside in the winter certainly isn't for everyone or every climate. I spent enough winters in Minnesota to know there's a time to just stay inside and play cribbage. And that's where the treadmill comes in. Maybe it's in your house. And it mocks you every time you walk past because you paid good money for that thing, and there it is covered in laundry. Or maybe you've paid good money for a gym membership just to have access to a treadmill. And you drive past and know you should go... And when you do, it's fine. You show up. You run. Maybe you see people you know. And you go back to your life. Just like when you run outside.
So what helps get me running when it's the tail end of winter and quite frankly I just don't really want to? Well, it's the same thing that gets me running when it's the middle of summer and it's way too hot to be out there doing my thing but I do anyway.
Either you want it or you don't. It's easy for me to write about drive and goals and all the usual stuff you read. But I'll let you in on a secret. Some days, I just don't have it. Oh sure, most days I can muster enough to go out and do something. But some days... Nope. It just doesn't come together. And that's OK too. I know I run more days than I don't. I know I get most my workouts. I know I get most my miles. If I just can't get in a run I might be upset by it, or depressed, or angry, but in the end I know I do what I can to set myself up for success every day. So if today didn't work, I'll get up tomorrow and try it again.
My name is Matt Rutledge, and I like to race. It has been about 2.5 days since my last race.
So that's a "kidding, not kidding" kind of thing. I really do love races. I would race every weekend if I thought I could afford it. There's just something about the competitive atmosphere that gets me fired up and makes some of the misery just kind of melt away. Throw in some cowbell... I should stop. My heart rate is climbing just thinking about it.
I was recently asked what my favorite race is. I'm not sure I have a good answer. I like them all. They all have their ups and downs. Some are measured in elevation. Some measured in emotion, or crowd support or any of the several little things that make up a good race. So I guess that makes my three favorite races the one I just finished, the one I'm running now, and the one coming up.
It sounds cliche. It sounds lame. But it's the truth. When it all comes together and I get to compete, I'm pretty dang happy.
Speaking of, there is a RunJunkEes race Saturday, July 18th, 2015 up in Kenosha, WI. It's a relay type event and promises to be a great show. If you don't have a team, you can be assigned one and make some new friends along the way. http://www.xcthrillogy.com/