Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Racing a Race: Bishop High Sierra 50 Mile

I was running down the trail one Thursday morning, when Guillaume turned to me and said, “you know, I was looking at the video from Gorge Waterfalls and you didn’t really look like you were trying.” I thought this was a pretty good compliment, until he continued, “I think you could have gone a lot harder.”

The weekend before the Bishop High Sierra 50 miler, I was finishing up a quick and easy 15 on the AC course, when I ran into the Three Amigos. I justified my low miles with the admission that I was racing in six days and just going to “see what happens.” This was apparently not the correct answer.  What I was supposed to say was that I was racing and I was going to win.

None of this was all too new, as I live with a man who tells me things like this all the time. As such, I realized something had to be done very quickly. Because none of these fools thought I was actually racing my races.

This is how I feel, both today, and every day of my life.
(Photo: Dominic Grossman)
(Extremely accurate enhancement: Ethan Newberry)
This is how I found myself ten miles in and a third of the way up a 4500’ climb, huffing and puffing my way through the BHS50.  And how five miles later, I was still running uphill, not letting myself hike and wondering where in the hell the 50k runners would turn around.  This remained elusive for so long because, turns out, I was actually ahead of most all of the 50k runners.  Was this a bad idea?  “Not so!” says the me who had something to prove to five very specific men.  I pressed on to the high point of the course, 9,000 and something feet.  Still running.

Steven Evers and I sharing some early morning miles. Steven is a sophomore
in high school, folks.  Zero jokes - kid's legit.
(Photo: Sean Malone)
My hips were really hurting, on account of the sandy, gradual Jeep road.  I was sinking into the terrain and losing power, wondering if I’d be completely blown out by the top.  That said, I was thanking my lucky stars that a nice cloud cover was rolling in and giving us some reprieve from the rising heat.  I’d spent a week in the 98 degree sweat-box that was my unairconditioned apartment during a LA heat wave and there was really only so much more I could take.  The night before the race – camping at 4500’ – was the most sleep I’d had in a week.

Nick Lachey in the house.
There was a mile or so of downhill around mile 15-ish, and to my delight, my legs opened right up.  It was just what I needed to push up the last climb to the overlook.  I caught up to my friend Howie, which seemed like possibly a bad idea, but I reasoned he’d catch right back up on the downhill.  I passed a few others and caught up to Ethan Veneklasen at the top, who I also didn’t expect to be anywhere near.  All of these things frightened me greatly, but nevertheless, I turned around and bombed back downhill.  I had to have a good story for Guillaume.

As I rolled along alone the next ten miles, I decided to rock some tunes for “enhancement.”  I usually don’t listen to music in races, but I was in a generally good mood and thought I might like to sing a bit.  This was a really, really good idea because it was really, really fun.  The snow capped Sierras were gorgeous, there was a fun hurdling section of downed trees, and I wasn’t finding the climbs to be all that difficult.  Admittedly, I was having some stomach issues – stopping three times to use the facilities (bushes) in the first 30 – but was saved by the advanced planning of Tums in all my drop bags.  Also, the stomach situation was not hindered at all by the consumption of PowerGels or recovery drink, so I figured it was merely a by-product of running hard at altitude.  I pressed on.

I pounded it with Mr. Prizzle as he flew by, leading the 100k and the entire race.  Others came and went, but not many at all.  Not nearly as many as I’d expected. But one was a girl with a 50k bib and she was flying… albeit no longer on the 50k course.  This is the interesting thing about the BHS ultras.  At any time you can switch the distance you are running, so you never really know what’s going on (if you care about that sort of thing.)  As such, I concluded that she had decided to bump up to the 50 mile and was absolutely kicking my ass. However, when I saw my friend Sada (100k) on the Bishop Creek Lodge turnaround, she said this flying mystery woman hadn’t done the Edison loop (that loop being 6 miles with a good 1000 ft of climb to over 9,000 ft).  I was confused by the whole thing, but there was honestly nothing I could do about it.  I was doing my very best, so if someone else’s best was better, so be it.  

Around this time, I began to notice that the clouds were burning off and it was getting warmer and warmer.  Keep in mind, I was still at 8,000 ft.  If it was hot up here… oh my, I didn’t even want to think about it.

No, Nick.  No.
As I started back on the rolling section of the course, I thought back to when I had run this race three years ago.  I’d been running decently well up until this point, when I began hiking most of the uphills, pretty much dead.  By the time I hit the long descent to town, I was puking and actually dead.  Part of me choosing the 50 mile over the 100k distance was having the comparison factor and hopefully seeing how much I had improved in the last few years. The other part is that there is not one iota of me that in any way desires to do an out-and-back on a lame-o dusty fireroad when I’m less than 2 miles from the finish and beer. I have priorities, people.  Anyway, I reasoned that part of that improvement should be that I had the ability to run these climbs at altitude, in the heat, after 30 miles.  That’s what I’d need to do at August's Angeles Crest 100, so that’s what I best be doing now.  What I was also doing now, was breathing like a fat man on a stair master and I'll be damned if I didn't keep that up for the rest of the race.  The other thing I'd be keeping up is passing people.  All the yo-yoing with other runners officially ceased at this moment.

This is precisely why I was startled to catch a red shirt in my peripheral, steadily approaching from behind.  Man or woman, friend or foe – I could not discern, so I just put my head back down and ran.  I was actually quite surprised at how good my legs felt and how strong I was taking the downhills.  I’ve been dealing with a  bit of turf toe the entire year and a little ITB for the past few weeks, but was feeling none of it now.  Dom would really be proud of me, I thought. But I knew I wouldn’t be seeing him today, as he was off adventuring on Paiute Pass and hadn’t made it back down to the course in time.  I’d have held out a 40% chance if he’d told me he’d definitely see me, but given that the last thing he’d said to me at the start was “don’t hold your breath,” I knew my chances were exactly -15%.  At least I’d be able to tell him how well I’d just pushed up this hill, I thought, as I stole one more glance at the advancing red dot.


My heart grew so happy as I realized it really was, *blink blink*, my favorite human and he was coming to see me.  Before long, he trotted up beside me, smiling and sure enough, complimenting me on my pace.  Apparently he’d made it down to the Intake 2 aid station thinking he’d be surprising me shortly, only to find out I was long gone.  He’d been chasing me for the last 4 miles, and I wasn’t exactly running slow.  Considering I’d had a good 5-10 minute lead, homeboy was putting down some good splits, and retrospectively, I’m happy I helped him get that mini-speed workout in.  He asked if I was winning, and I told him I couldn’t be sure.  He thought he’d seen the mystery 50k runner I spoke of sitting back at Intake 2, but I trusted nothing at this point. The heat began it’s attack.

Hey! Everything is still going so well!
(Photo: Dominic Grossman)
Now around mile 37, we were still up right under 8,000’ and we were going to descend all the way down to 4,400’.  Things were going to get worse and that was a fact.  Dom insisted I start dousing myself with water, but it wasn’t long before I was doing this without command.  The lower we got, the less I was able to speak and the more labored my breath became.  I was running hard, but my legs said faster!  We can go faster!  However, every time I tried to drop down below 7/7:30-ish, I felt as if I would hyperventilate and was forced to dial it back.  Checking my watch, it looked as if I may go sub-9 on this course, which would be incredible for me.  This excited me greatly.

Whee! I am running in the mountains!
(Photo: Dominic Grossman)
As I hit what I thought was the second to last aid station and doused myself with sponges, I inquired on the exact mileage to the last.  “3.7 to the next, then 3.7 to go!”  No, no, no – there should only be 5-ish miles left.  You’re saying 7.5.  I can’t do 7.5 in the time allotted to me.  I can’t break 9 hours if this is true.

Man, did this ever take the wind out of my sails.  I was trapped in this high desert, where fun was evaporating quicker than my sweat.  And hotter, still…. 

“I’ve entered a deep pain cave and will no longer speak.”

This was the last thing I said to Dom.  Accordingly, he simply moved a bit ahead of me and kept the pace.  I kept my eyes on his back and literally thought of nothing.  Just run.  You wanted this heat.  You asked for it.  It will be worse at AC.  Just go.

We reached a small creek and Dom bent down to splash me, as I was now fully hyperventilating.  A few dousings and I was back at it, but my silent focus was finally broken by a scream.

“Ants! ANTS!!!!!”

Apparently Dom had kneeled on an ant hill and an entire army of stinging red little jerks was now making its way up his shorts.  I couldn’t help but laugh, as I left him there, dancing around like a maniac.  He’d be fine.

What was not fine was this next part of the course.  Anyone who ran that shit knows exactly what I’m talking about, but for those of you who weren’t so fortunate to experience your own private hell last Saturday, allow me to elaborate:

We were on this Jeep road, which suddenly turned very wide.  The downhill grade first flattened, and then turned ever so slightly upward.  The dusty surface turned almost white and the glare from the sun made me squint, even behind my sunglasses.  The heat was literally burning my skin, the crest of the hill blocked the view, and the only assumption one could make was that we were now doomed to this endeavor for the rest of our existence.  At least that would be short, because we were all certainly going to die here.  I passed two or three more 50k runners, but could no longer offer any auditory encouragement – partly because of my breathing, mainly because I couldn’t actually be sure that we were going to make it out of here and I didn’t want to be doling out false hope. As such, I resorted to a hearty thumbs-up to my fellow compatriots, battling against what I have since dubbed, “Dumb Road.”

Dom takes a moment for a selfie on Dumb Road. I die a little more inside.
(Selfie: Dominic "The King" Grossman)
By the grace of god, I did somehow turn off the drasted thing and reached the final aid station.  This greatly restored my faith in my ability to not die, and I now focused on getting myself a shiny 50 mile PR.  Another dousing, one last PowerGel, some cold Coke, a little puking in my mouth, and I was off!

Dom called my Dad about a mile from the finish, as he would soon lose service and we wanted to find out how he did in his trail marathon back in Missouri.  In the cool, tree-covered forest.  Probably not containing a road that tried to kill him.  He happily reported that he had finished despite some wicked cramping and cheered me on.  This was the final push I needed to finish strong.

As we pulled into the campground, now only a half mile from the official end, my heart began to hurt quite badly.  Not in the “that poor kitty only has one leg” sort of way, but more like, “is this… heart attack?”  I agreed with Dom that I should probably slow down a bit and just jog it in rather than risk it. “It” being exploding. I crossed the line in 9:19 – a 12 minute PR for the distance.  I don’t know what that says for my previous attempts, as this course was much harder and higher and hotter... and just generally not something one should be PR-ing on.  

Maybe Guillaume was onto something.

(Photo: Dominic Grossman)

Things you should know:

SHOES:  New Balance 1400v2
SOCKS:  Injinji Trail 2.0
SUNGLASSES:  New Balance Retro Fresh
NUTRITION:  PowerGels + 3 servings of PowerBar Recovery Mix; Ice Water & Coke from aid stations

FAVORITE SONG OF THE DAY:  “Bandida” by Audra Mae

FAVORITE SECTION OF THE DAY:  The aspen-lined trails between McGee Creek and the Edison Loop
FAVORITE BEER OF THE DAY:  Mammoth Brewing Co. Double Nut Porter
FAVORITE MOMENT OF THE DAY:  Coming back to watch Geoff finish the 100k and wishing he had pizza.  We actually had pizza.  

Thank you to Tim Stahler and Inside Trail.  Taking over a race with this kind of history is no small endeavor and you definitely stepped up to the task.  The race was great, the post-race was delightful and the combination of a beer stein and framed photo of the Sierras in the fall is the best prize I’ve ever received.  I've also never received both a pint glass AND a stein in the same gesture, but I believe you may have me pegged.

Oh yeah, that reminds me – I DID actually win the 50 mile race, despite the fact that I was still unsure when I crossed.  I was fourth overall, as well, but that’s only because The Queen ran the 100k instead.  I’m definitely more confident in my abilities, but I’m not delusional. :)