Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Two Cool Things

I know I've not yet completed my AC race report… which was 2 months ago. Yikes.  But, considering that that story has turned into an epic work of non-fiction, I've decided to take a quick break to post some more relevant, timely and exciting news.  

1.  I'm now running for New Balance!
This is super exciting to me for a variety of reasons.  The main being that over the past few years, their minimal line has helped to completely transform my running.  The R&D they are putting into their trail (namely minimal trail) shoes is like no other company out there and I am excited and honored to start being a part of it.  

If you've followed this blog for some time, you may note that I did run for another shoe company for a number of years.  During this time, I would still experiment with other shoes on the market for comparison purposes in everyone's search to find/create the perfect shoe.  When New Balance created the WT100, the gravitational pull could not be ignored.  In short, my feet fell in love.

Elissa and I flying down from the high country in our
(photo:  Dominic Grossman)
While I definitely consider myself a more minimal runner, it has become important to me to build an arsenal of shoes to train and race in.  Just as I need to vary my workouts to see the max benefit - so do I with what is on my feet.  Most days call for the WT101, others work in the Minimus.  Road runs and trail runs involving a lot of steep downhill firewood are done in the RC1400.  Soft sand runs and grass striders are done barefoot.  A flat, slow recovery day even works in the 890s, which is about as much of a heel as I'll ever go.  I can feel what my feet and body are calling for, and fortunately, New Balance has got an answer for me at every stage of my building up and breaking down.

The two recent additions to the New Balance Outdoor
Ambassador team @ Mt. Baldy Race to the Top
(cancelled mid-race due to weather)
photo:  Andy Noise
On a more emotional level, representing New Balance is special to me as an old pair of 760-somethings in a narrow width were my first "real" running shoes back when I started running cross-country in high school.  The very first pair were a set of mismatched size Reeboks from an outlet store in the Ozarks… which is why I say "real" pair with the NBs.  I've had about 16 pairs of the things over the last 13 years, and they've seen me through all sorts of running excitement and accomplishments.  I always try to emulate that first year of running - where I knew no boundaries and truly believed I could do anything.  Sometimes that's hard with all the ups and downs I've experienced, but slipping into a pair of kicks with a nice crisp N on the side is a good reminder of where I started and that unquenchable thirst for greatness. 

So basically, I can sum this all up by saying I don't believe in simply slapping a logo across your chest and getting free product if the product itself does not work for you.  In short, New Balance works for me.  It works really well.  And I'm stoked that they believe in me and my commitment to the sport enough to help support my efforts in making excellent happen.  And I'm getting on that as we speak….

This brings me to exciting thing #2:
I won a race!

I haven't won a race since high-school cross-country, so this is pretty cool.  It wasn't just my first ultra win; it was my first win in a very, very long time.  And the best part is, it was a last minute entry into a situation that was designed simply to kick-start my confidence into taking on higher mileage training again.  More on that:

Since finishing Angeles Crest with a nice, large swollen mass on my left knee; I've been purposefully timid in my reintroduction to ultrarunning.  I've sworn to myself that I would not race again until I was back to 100%, but also that I would continue to do as much as I could since I believe in active recovery for just about everything.  That has resulted in me spending every meeting at work digging my thumb into the large ball of scar tissue in my knee to work on dissipating it, and lots of running, stretching and strengthening.  I'm proud to report that it IS getting better.  But I have been dissuaded over the past few months by anything really long and with long downhills.  The pain comes back and I freak out that my body is not yet ready to handle the effort to train for and race the 100 mile distance.  And after a largely botched attempt, that is really what I want to do right now.

I was looking forward to crewing and pacing my amazing friend, Erin Maruoka, in running her first 100 miler at Rio del Lago.  She'd accompanied me during some very dark (both physically and metaphorically) miles during AC and I couldn't wait to return the favor.  Unfortunately, the Marocket came down with a nasty injury and on Tuesday made the responsible call to wait to run 100 miles when her body was ready.  The following few days went like this:  On Wednesday, I contacted our friend Lukas, the Pride of Slovakia, who was also running his first 100 to see if he'd like an extra crew member - since I was already going to be riding up with him on Friday and had the day off.  He thought it was a good idea to add, as he said, "a woman's touch" to the mix of very fast and very competitive boys, so that was done.  Then on Thursday, I got a wild idea:  maybe I should run the race?  No, no… running 100 miles would be an entirely foolish idea.  But wait.  There's a 50k….

After less than an hour of contemplation, I was registered.  A low-pressure 50k seemed to be just what I needed to get my confidence back and test where my body was.  Plus, while the course was hilly, it was all rollers - so there would be no long, hard-packed fire roads to destroy my knee.  After the Baldy Race to the Top was called off 2 mi from the summit (due to lightning and possible hypothermia) a few days prior, I was hungry for a race.

Dom, Lukas and I drove up Friday morning - after only a few hours of sleep, thanks to seeing these guys down in Orange County.  We immediately noticed how incredibly hot and muggy it was outside, and I was immediately thankful I wasn't the one running 100 miles the next day.  I was still running 31 miles…. but I kept forgetting that.  I was too wrapped up in the excitement of preparing Lukas for his first 100 mile adventure.  And laughing at the antics occurring in an Olive Garden, thanks to a four beer deep Tyler Olson and an encouraging Dominic Grossman.  

Team Lukas:  Tyler, Ankur, me, Mighty Mouse and Dom
Personally, I like the variant display of shoes - Newtons,
Toms, WT101s, Hokas and MT101s.
photo:  Tyler Olson
The next morning we rose early to make the 5am 100 mile start.  We saw them off and 2 miles in, and then the boys took off for a long and fun day of chasing Lukas around the lake.  I hung out for an hour, followed by an anticlimactic "go," signaling that I must start running.   A few guys took off immediately, as guys often do, and I settled into a solid and effortless 7:30 pace along the bike path.  It was still dark, but I was already sweating.  This was going to be fun.  

After about a mile, a ponytail went blowing past me to take the lead.  Mind you, I was still clipping along at that sub-8 pace for a 50k.  I knew there was absolutely no reason to give chase, so I let her go and enjoyed the easy, gradual downhill on the bike path to the turnaround.  Even still, I was already looking forward to being done with the concrete, so I was delighted when that turnaround point came.  As I doubled back, I couldn't help but size up my competition - even though I had vowed that this was only a race with myself and to test my current fitness level.  I couldn't help it.  And actually, it was a good sign that I still had a little fire in me.

When we hit the first hill on the way back, the girl from mile 1 slowed to a walk and I cruised past never to see her again.  I later found out she was only 15 years old!  Running an ultra!  AND it wasn't her first.  Crazy, seeing as though I didn't even know this shit existed when I was 15.  Mad, MAD props to Ms. Sarah Neal for being awesome.  

I crossed the levee to the other side of the lake feeling pretty good and took stock of the beach that I would be visiting in a few hours for a heavenly post race swim.  The air was sticky and I was already looking forward to that.  As I rolled along the trail next to the lake, I was treated to an absolutely stunning sunrise over the hills…. a flash of fiery red cutting through the morning clouds and reflecting off the water.  I was immediately glad I decided to do this.  Epic sunrises signal amazing adventures ahead, and that was exactly what I needed.

I quickly jammed through the first aid station, Twin Rocks, and begun my first go with the 'meat grinder' -  a delicious 6 mile section which Lukas and Jimmy would get to traverse 4 times.  Now, my first experience with this section was, "Really?  This is not bad at all.  Some rolling up and down.  A few technical sections.  Kinda rocky.  A few big uneven steps.  Eh."  Actually, I was kind of savoring in the whole "not as bad as I thought mantra" for the whole thing.  I thought I might hurt the whole time.  I thought I'd be running slower.  I thought the heat would be worse.  But none of these things were the case, and I was running pretty strong.  Even pushing it a bit.

As I got to the next aid station, Horseshoe Bar, the heat was definitely starting to rise and I looked forward to getting some ice in my bottles.  I also got a little unplanned 2 1/2 minute break here, as I think the two volunteers here were used to the more relaxed visits from the 100 milers and 100k-ers.  Oh well, they were super nice and it was nice to have a little conversation, as I'd been running alone all day.  Once filled, I took off for Rattlesnake - which would be mile 17.5 and my turnaround point.  I couldn't believe I was already almost halfway done and I was still running at a really great pace both up and down the hills.  Freaking sweet.  With the heat, the hills and my current state of rehabilitation, I reasoned that a sub 5 hour finish would be an A goal for the day - but as long as I was done by noon, I'd be happy.  The way things were looking, I was going to far surpass that goal and if I really wanted to explore where my red line was, I may even be able to crack a PR at the distance.  

I had begun passing some 100kers by this point and again, it was nice to see some other folks, bust out some high fives and altogether keep the energy rolling.  The heat was now in full swing and as I hit the exposed, dusty sections of the trail, I could feel it bearing down.  I only hoped that my stomach would not go south if I continued to push.  I had broken a few cardinal rules in the racing/nutrition department:  1.  never try anything new; and 2. especially don't try any new food.  So I already had that going for me.  BUT, I have to say, my little experiment was pretty much the best idea ever, because this is what I came up with:

Hydropak Softflask

Genius setup for speed
I call it the Moo Cow System.  Double the spouts for double the fun!  The system consists of a Hydropak gel softflask and my trusty Amphipod handhelds.  Normally, I can only fit 4 gels max in each zippered pouch and getting them in and out when stuffed to the gills is a challenge.  Especially when there are rocks to stumble on and trees to run into when you're not paying attention.  BUT, with the soft flask, I reasoned that I could load in 5 gels and rig it up so that I'd never have to fumble with wrappers.  This brought me to experiment number 2:  I normally use GU, simply because it never fails me.  Partially because the consistency is thinner than GU and would more easily flow through the valve, and partially because I had not consumed a GU since AC, where I ate roughly 57 of them, I decided to try Powergel instead.  Dom uses it and it hasn't killed him yet, so I reasoned that this would be an OK thing to do.  Let me just tell you, the results were astounding.  I took two pulls from the flask every 20 minutes, never fumbling with a wrapper and never breaking stride.  My only regret was only having purchased one softflask, so that eventually I had to duck into my traditional supply of GU packets.  Needless to say, I will be rigging up both my bottles like this for all future races.  Now if I could only find a solution for more easily popping my Saltstick.  I do have an idea on that, but it has yet to be engineered.  Stay tuned.

Same Rattlesnake Bar - post-race crewing Lukas, now
in the lead of the 100mi, never to be caught
(photo:  Dominic Grossman)
OK, miracle invention aside, back to the race.  The heat was up, my stomach was fine, my legs felt great and I was approaching the turnaround at Rattlesnake.  This was exciting, given that soon I'd see where the four guys up ahead of me were and see if I could work on picking any of them off.  Because that would be fun.  I soon discovered that the lead guy was way out front and uncatchable, the next two were maybe a possibility if I really started burning it and fourth was only a few minutes ahead.  I thought with any luck I might be able to catch at least one of them, but I wasn't going to burn myself out trying.  There wasn't really much point to that, considering that I wanted this race to begin a really solid block of training to build me back up to 100 mile weeks.  At the turnaround I decided to skip the refill, given that I was carrying two bottles and really only needed one and set into chase.  There were another couple guys in the 5-10 min range behind me, but the next women were spaced out 20-30 minutes back.  I realized here that unless I totally blew up, I was probably going to win this race.  Cool.  Now let's see how fast I can do it.

By the time I got to Horseshoe again, I was starting to cook a bit and realized my legs were starting to feel the hills a bit.  My pace had slowed a little and I realized the PR situation was now officially out of range, but sub-5 was still alive and I wanted to make it hurt just enough to deem the day a descent effort, but not enough to require recovery days.  Recalling the previous impromptu rest here, which seemed nice at this point but would not really be helpful in the above goal, I decided to forego the ice and simply fill one of my bottles myself with tepid water.  In and out and onward.

I reasoned that the next 6 mile section should take me an hour tops and that I'd be fine sans ice.  The volunteers had told me I was on the 'down' side of the course, whatever that meant, because I was pretty sure it was all just up and down - but that gave me a little confidence that maybe I could do it even quicker.  Enter the fear of the meat grinder.  I now understand.  This section actually took me closer to 70 minutes, meaning that my pace had slowed to above 10 minute miles, even though I was sure I was averaging 9.  The sun was scorching and the little patches shining through the trees and off the rocks created a dizzying effect, resulting in more than a few missteps.  I was eating, I was drinking and I was running - but I was really starting to hurt.  In short, my meat was ground.

By the time I reached the final aid station at Twin Rocks, I was ready to get this race over with.  Mind you, I was still running well and experiencing no real lulls of energy or cramping - but I was definitely getting tired.  I figured the runners up ahead were long gone and it was actually possible that someone might catch me, though I hadn't seen anyone on my tail.  I decided to stop here and load one bottle up with ice after what I'd just been through, and to my surprise, the girl at the aid station had a message for me.  "Hey, the guy ahead says your about to catch him and you should go ahead and get on with it."  This actually seemed like fun as I would have loved even a mile of company, so I decided to go on and push it in for the last five miles.

I knew soon that the trail would widen and the footing would be a great deal easier, meaning that I could really run hard to the finish.  The sub-5 time was going to be close, but if I worked hard, I could do it.  Sure enough, I soon hit the rolling section along the lake and really sunk my teeth into the steep ups and downs.  I was crunching the numbers in my head and I still had a shot.  I hit one particularly steep hill and focused on powering through, feeling a deep burn in my legs.  I reached the top and saw a yellow building that I didn't remember from the way out and there were no markers telling me which way to go next.  I actually didn't think this was all that weird, as there were a few places where intersections weren't quite clear and I just had to figure it out.  I knew there shouldn't be any more single track at this point, so I turned right past the structure and began heading down.  After a few minutes, I knew I should not be heading down for that long and realized that I was officially lost.  So I climbed back up and experimented with the other way.  Definitely also wrong. The only place to go was backwards until I found something that seemed likely or another person.  As such I ran back down the hill, shouting all the way - trying to hear if there was anyone else that could point me back onto the course.  A woman came out of her yard and told me she had seen ribbons back down by the road and maybe to check there.  Eventually I spilled out to a place where the trail had forked left, and upon studying the footprints in the dirt, concluded that this was the way to go.  Seeing that I'd already lost around 20 minutes on the ordeal, and that it was certain I'd been passed by at least one or two people - I decided to run back to the road where there were ribbons a plenty and grab one to mark the turn.  I'd heard that Rio del Lago is famous for having markers taken down by possessive homeowners along the lake that don't want us out there on "their trails," so I wasn't surprised by the lack of marking in a crucial place and don't fault the race management one bit.  I hoped that by putting a new ribbon up, others could avoid the same mistake and frustration… at least until some other self-entitled prick decided to rip that one down too.  Ugh.  Don't even get me started on that.

At any rate, I was a little annoyed after the detour - especially since I now only had about 10 minutes to go over 3 miles.  Obviously that wasn't happening.  However, I decided to turn that aggression into speed and made myself run hard all the way home.  That was the true goal - to push myself beyond my comfort zone and get back into racing mode… so that's what I would do.  I couldn't help the unfortunate detour - if anything, I got at least an extra mile or so in there and these trails around the lake were quite enjoyable.  More bang for my buck.  I will admit that my knee was starting to flare up a bit in these last 5 miles, but nothing stabbing and nothing I wasn't able to push through.  Still, it makes me a little concerned as to whether or not I am going to be able to handle another 100 in November.  

As I finally opened up onto the levee, I could see another figure off in the distance - presumably one of the guys who had passed me.  I doubted another woman had caught up, but who knew at this point.  I ran hard, enjoying the last mile of the run and looking very forward to both a swim in the lake and meeting up with Team Lukas to see how the Pride of Slovakia was doing.  As I crossed the finish line, I heard the shout of "first woman!" and realized I had actually won.  I looked back across the levee and couldn't see any other figures approaching, so despite my detour, I guess it hadn't even been close.  I thanked the race organizer for a great day and then ran down the beach for a heavenly swim/salt removal.  But not before running into Ben, the guy I was trying to catch, who had apparently been the figure on the levee finishing right in front of me.  "How didn't you catch me?  I was dying out there, and I got lost for a bit!"  Ha, unsurprisingly we'd both had the same trouble - only he realized the mistake immediately, whereas I tried desperately to prove that I hadn't gone the wrong way.  At any rate, we were both shocked that no one had passed us.  
Trick or Treat, bitches.  I'm the champ!
(photo:  Tyler Olson)

For my next trick, I proceeded to swim around the lake for an hour or so, which felt absolutely heavenly.  When I finally got a hold of Dom, he told me the fantastic news that Lukas was closing in on the leader and running ridiculously strong.  Soon after, he and Ankur picked me up on the side of Auburn-Folsom road and we were off to crew a victory.

Yep, that's right, Lukas won his first 100 miler, in his first attempt at the distance!  Mind you, he's no stranger to endurance events - with multiple Ironman and Kona finishes; as well as 50 miles and 100k.  But still, there's nothing quite like running 100 miles and he took that challenge like a champ.  Quite literally.  It was very inspiring to see how dialed in he remained all day and how he took care of himself in the heat.  He obviously knew what to do to get the most out of his body in the steamy conditions and I learned a lot.  Oh, also we had a ton of fun since unlike many mountain 100s, we got to see our runner every 3-6 miles!  Plus, Jimmy was right behind Lukas - so each aid station was like a little party with all of our friends.  Such a great weekend.

In the end,  Lukas finished first in 18:41, followed by Jimmy in a personal RDL PR of 19:29.  Then we all went to In 'n Out and I attempted to fall asleep back at the hotel in the same shorts I'd slipped on almost 24 hours prior.  Race number still attached.  

Dom promptly kicked me out and into the shower.

Late night fun.

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