Coach Spencer Runs in the Woods

Coach Spencer Runs in the Woods

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Black Mountain Marathon- Fun With Mud

It's been 3 weeks since the 100 miler & my hip flexors have been hurting ever since. Achilles hurts a little. Neither pain would make running the Black Mountain Marathon a particularly good idea, but after some debate, I did it anyway.

I stayed with Kevin, whose son & daughter are on my cross country team. He was running the Mount Mitchell Challenge, which runs simultaneously with the marathon. This is a 40 mile race & when the marathoners turn around at the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Challenge runners keep going to the top of Mount Mitchell and back. It felt strange not doing the full Challenge because I usually do the longest distance offered, but I knew when I registered that a mountain trail marathon after Rocky Raccoon would be hard enough and 40 would be a real stretch. I don't feel too wimpy because the marathon wasn't "just" a marathon. It was a "challenge" itself.

The marathon (& lower part of the Challenge) course goes from town along paved roads for the first 2-3 miles & then follows singletrack trails for awhile, before connecting to some very rough jeep roads. The first half is all up the mountain & the last half is all back down (although not quite the same way you came in places). Kevin has done the Challenge twice before & assured me the mountain wasn't that steep- that it was a long grind, but not as bad as I thought. He was right. The marathon rises 3000' in the first half (getting you up to 5300' with a good view of Mt. Mitchell on a normal day), which is a big chunk of elevation, but I knew I could cruise on the way down. By the time I turned around, it felt like the race was over.

So the elevation gain was tough, but what made it much worse was the fact that it had rained for 24 hours prior to & during the race. What wasn't mud was flowing water or rock. Part of it was like running through a shallow creek. Kevin admitted he didn't remember how rocky it was. The jeep roads were extremely rocky. I didn't mind. Coming down was a breeze. I almost felt like I should be working harder for some reason because it was so easy. With the mud & rocks, you couldn't fly down, but the only effort I exerted was dodging the biggest rocks & puddles.

Despite the slop, I had a really good time! I knew I would hurt because of the 100 miler, so I took it easy & tried to enjoy it. I ran with Kevin for the first hour & then took a bathroom break. I talked to people around me for the next 2 hours before getting to the 14 mile turnaround in just over 3 hours. The conditions on Mount Mitchell were severe- around 30 degrees, 30-40 mph winds & heavy snow. If it hadn't poured on the Challenge runners all morning, I think they would've been fine to continue (soaking wet + 30 degrees + high winds = game over), but the park rangers made a decision to close it to runners who showed up after 3 hours to the marathon turnaround. The bad part is no one knew about this cutoff.

Kevin was the first one denied access to continue! I ran into him a minute after he left the turnaround & he went back with me and ran the rest of the way down the mountain with me. I'm sure he was disappointed, but I think he changed his mind when we got to the next aid station & heard an announcement on the EMT's radio, "We've already pulled 3 runners with hypothermia & we need more blankets & EMT workers because we're expecting more."

Here's what the race director sent out after the race, "...For those that missed the trip to the summit…either because you were a marathoner or because you fell victim to the modified cut-off time …The conditions at the top included heavy snow/sleet, temperatures hovering at or below freezing and winds gusting in excess of 50mph…Our fire/rescue crews have final say for where and when we can proceed on the mountain…The decision was made about an hour into the race to move the cut-off from 10:30am to 10am for the safety of both runners and volunteers at the summit…With upwards of 40 people huddled in the ranger’s shelter at times, and more than 20 runners needing to be evacuated in vehicles from the mountain, it was definitely a needed precaution..." Keep in mind this is 40 people hudled/20 people carried out out of less than 70 that were allowed to go to the top.

Most people were bundled with jackets, tights, gloves, hats, etc. I was fine (just a little on the chilly side sometimes) with shorts, a thin long sleeve shirt & a short sleeve shirt on. Of course, that wouldn't have cut it for the Challenge, but I felt fine where I was.

The hip flexors hurt (Achilles did not), but it never got any worse during the race. Otherwise felt pretty good. After the race, I noticed my big toe is killing me! Maybe from running on my toes going up the mountain. Had I not been a little banged up, I don't know that I would've gone much faster. I was working pretty hard for the first hour and then once on the jeep roads, it seemed to get a little easier. I kicked it in the last 2-3 miles and pushed it as hard as I could. I'm not sure why since I'd taken it easy most of the race, but I like to finish a race strong. I also wanted to finish under 5:30 & ended up 5:27. Kinda felt guilty leaving Kevin. He's a faster runner than me and I WAS NOT trying to race him. He'd kill me if we were really racing. I waited a couple of times for him but he told me to go ahead. I'm pacing for the last 20-40 miles in his first 100 at Umstead in about 6 weeks.

But yeah, this was one of my most enjoyable races ever maybe. I've never run the majority of a race with someone & had a good time chatting, making jokes & sharing the miserable conditions with someone. Had I been out there running by myself without talking to the people around me, I would've had a much less enjoyable experience. ...and that's what I'd call today- an experience, not really a race. People were really relaxed and knew it was better to laugh at the muck than to curse it.

Giveaways were good- cotton t-shirt, 'boggan & North Face finisher's fleece with embroidered race logo.

I plan on doing the Challenge next year and hope to encounter some snow on the ground or falling, but no rain & mud, please! Once was fun, but I wouldn't look forward to a repeat performance.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Rocky Raccoon 100 Miler- Long Report

OK, here's the long version of the report...

QUICK FACTS: Finished! Here's proof. :) 27:54. Big problems, but finished!

BACKGROUND: I decided about 11 months ago to run a 100 miler. I had run 60 miles, 55 miles, 50Ks, Ironman races, a lot of marathons, etc., but just as I knew a marathon isn't just like running two 1/2 marathons (a lot of people think that), 100 miles would be a lot different than a 12 hour race. It was. I had a lot of good long training runs. I haven't counted, but I bet I've run over marathon distance 30-35 times in the past 18 months.

People have asked me this past year, "WHY??!!" I don't have a good reason. Because it's there? Because that's sort of the highest test of endurance in the sport of running (Yes, there are a tiny handful of longer races & multi-day events.)? Because I wanted to see if I could? Because the idea of running 100 miles seems absolutely absurd? All of that, I guess.

It wasn't too many years ago at mile 18 of a marathon that I told my wife, "People just aren't meant to run more than about 16 miles." That still seems a dividing line of running to me. I've always thought 7 miles and beyond is a milestone, then after 16 is a biggie, and above a marathon... and I think 60 is the next big divide. ...and it's a divide I don't plan on crossing again! I've run 55-60 three times. The first time was fantastic & may have been the most fun I've ever had running. It's a distance I'm comfortable with but, of course, is still really difficult. 50K (31 miles) is even more enjoyable. I like runs measured in hours, but 50K is nice because you're finished before the pain sets in. 100 miles is different.

THE COURSE: Five 20 mile loops of rolling hills in pine forest, around a lake for part of the time. About 75% rooty single track trail, about 25% dirt service roads. Something I hadn't read before was all the SAND on the course. The dirt road sections were particularly sandy. Sand is the archenemy of a runner's feet! 100 miles with that stuff rubbing against your feet is no good. This year was a new course. Apparently, it was a little tougher than in years past. The race is 60 miles north of Houston & it wasn't as hilly as what I'm used to, which is good! In the woods, the hills weren't noticeable, but when you got out on the dirt roads, they seemed to gradually go on forever! ...and except for a couple of downhills, when you were on the dirt roads, you were always going up! Of course, there must have been downhills to match in the woods. The dirt roads were by far my least favorite parts.

LAP 1: The race started at 6 AM Saturday. I was outfitted in a bright green shirt with homemade letters that read, "Coach!" I got a lot of "Go Coach!" comments, which is what I wanted. I was in the minority, being there with no crew (people to help you with your stuff and cheer you on) or pacers (people that run with you the last 40 miles and pull you along). I was there by myself & I wanted it that way. I thought if I brought my family, I'd get too emotional seeing them & want to drop out. I am extremely thankful for the people who called me (yes I had my cell phone as a portable cheering section): parents, Jennifer, Root, Goodpasture, Andy, Hannah Parks, Molly, ShanO, AT, Will, Reid, Nick Holley, Kevin, Mr. Rash, Sam, Carly, Nick Lowman... Almost all of these people are runners, but not ultrarunners. Some of the comments were kinda funny, (after 7 hours of running), "What?! You're not finished? How much longer will it take you?" or (when I literally wondered how fast I could get to the hospital), "You can't give up. Stop being a baby. You're almost halfway there."

The first 20 miles wasn't very memorable. The first 4 miles or so was single file in the dark and was very slow. At least I didn't go out too fast. I was fine with it. A few times on the first 2 laps people yelled at me, "Coach! Walk this hill. Why are you in such a hurry? You've got all night." These guys were veterans of 10-30 100 milers & were trying to show the newbie the ropes. I thought I was taking it easy all along & I walked the steeper hills, but ran most of the gradual ones. They yelled at me when I did.

LAP 2: The sun was out & heating up during the second 20 mile loop. It got up to 78 degrees Saturday (hottest in race history)!! Yes, this is early February! UGH! Not at all acclimated to that. By mile 35 or so, I realized I wasn't sweating. Uh oh. I sweat a lot when it's hot- about 2 liters/hour. Your body can only absorb about 28 ounces/hour. You see where that can be a problem after 24+ hours. So I was very dehydrated. Not sweating, cold skin, stomach cramps. It was almost Game Over. Thoughts began to turn to, "I wonder if my insurance will pay for an emergency room visit in Texas." I did something pretty smart, though, I think. Instead of dropping out, I walked more than I had been. I walked about 1/3 of the time there for about 5-10 miles & slowed the running down a little. I knew if I exerted less energy and pumped the fluids and electrolytes, I might bounce back. Any rational person would tell you, no, this wasn't smart, that a smart person would have dropped out at the first sign of dehydration. Dehydration leads to heat exhaustion (I've had that before- no fun at all), which leads to heat stroke, which leads to death (probably no fun either). I finished lap 2 in a panic, but for 15 miles of that lap, things were good.

Lap 3- From mile 38-50, really, I thought there was about an 85% chance I'd have to drop out and 100% chance I'd have to get medical treatment. I knew there were IV bags in my future. I really freaked out, but continued to drink a lot, kept taking electrolyte pills, and ate. Around 50 miles, I felt better and was able to run as much as I had been. It got dark in the last couple of miles of this loop and I followed another runner down the wrong trail. Probably cost us about a mile, so really I ran 101! Once the darkness came, I felt great- both physically & knowing it would cool off (still only to 58 degrees- pretty warm). I ran some of my best miles from 55-72. I felt very strong & focused. Yeah, I was extremely fatigued, but I can't explain it- I knew I'd finish, and I kept plugging away. No problems during this period.

Lap 4- See above. Felt strong this lap. I didn't take any caffeine until it got dark. I tried a product I'd only used in training a couple of times. Now, I can't say that it was this product that got me through these miles, but I really do feel like it helped. A month ago, a guy emailed me & said he read my blog & wanted to send me some samples of Roctane (gel made by Gu). A week later, there were 24 packs in my mailbox. It has caffeine and amino acids in them which are supposed to maintain focus. My mood changed during these miles, I was happy to be out there getting the race over with, and I just stared at the beam of my headlamp in front of me and kept pushing. At 35mg of caffeine, I only at the Roctane once every 90 minutes and ate about 5 of them.

Lap 5- At mile 79, I puked. I had earlier in the race, choking on an electrolyte pill. I didn't think much of it either time. The main aid station at the end of each lap was the only time I sat down, went through my drop bags and restocked the things I'd take with me. I didn't waste time there, but somehow I always stayed longer than I wanted to. 7 minutes the first time, then 12, then up to 22 the last time. The last time, was the first time I checked the blisters on my feet. I decided they were in a place I couldn't do much about- right in the crack between the ball of the foot & the toes. No toe blisters (thanks to Injinji socks) & none on the insides of the ball of my feet like I sometimes get. I wore the same shoes the whole race. I've always read about your feet swelling & how you need larger shoes for the last part of the race. I brought other shoes but decided to stay with the ones I had on since they're my favorites at this time. I didn't listen, but my feet are still extremely swollen 36 hours after finishing. I can barely cram them into shoes & I'm sure that's what caused the blisters.

Anyway, sitting in the aid station the last time was the only time I felt a little out of it mentally. Not too bad, but it was a little hard to comprehend what the volunteers were asking me. "Can I get you anything? Soup? Grilled cheese? Gatorade?" "Huh? Umm... no. No. Umm... I just threw up. I umm... I just need a minute. I'll get what I need in a minute." I knew then that the pukes were going to continue.

Lap 5 saw me throw up about 6 times. It was miserable & at one point I yelled, "How am I supposed to finish this stupid race if I can't keep anything down?!" I yelled a lot of things that lap. While I was heaving, a guy passed me and patted me on the back, saying, "It don't get no better than this, buddy!" Another time somebody said, "It never always gets worse, but it usually does. You'll make it." I was fearful that having no calories to fuel me or fluids to hydrate me there was no way I could expect to finish. Every time I ran, I threw up. I started walking & kept thinking, "If I just keep walking and don't run, I'll use less energy & won't sweat out as much. If I take it easy, I can finish. If I push- even run half the time, I won't finish." This is the second very smart thing I did. I walked almost the entire last 20 miles. Most of it was as fast as I could possibly walk and was sort of a walk/jog/shuffle. From 82-90, I really had to hold myself back & force myself not to run.

Around 91, I started feeling better, but had zero energy from going 3 hours with no calories. All race, I stayed on the low end of calories- around 200-250/hour even when I felt good. I ate nothing but gel, Clif Shots, and handfuls of Chex mix here & there. Couldn't think of stomaching anything else. The aid stations were wonderful & staffed by experienced ultrarunners. You pass by the same aid station 6 miles & 12 miles into the loop. At 86, I was dying & a woman massaged my legs, back & shoulders. She stuffed a few Ritz crackers into my pocket & said, "You have to eat these before you get back. You have 2 hours to eat them & it's only 4 crackers, but you have to eat these." Then she ran 1/4 mile down the trail with a ziploc bag of about 8 saltines & said, "You have to eat these too." Her urgency & concern really struck me. You can't believe how much I struggled to get one of those crackers down every 15 minutes.

When I got back to that aid station at 92, my stomach felt better, but without eating, I had zero energy and didn't want to push food. Several experienced people at the aid station said, "Yeah, DO NOT RUN! Take your time and just walk in. You can walk in from here on nothing more than water. Eat a little if you can, but just keep moving." My fast walking turned to moderate walking around 96. People told me I looked strong. I sure didn't feel like it! I was doing better than the people I saw laying in the dirt or barely getting one foot in front of the other. With 2 miles to go, I thought I could get in under 28 hours. I walked as fast as I could- tried to run a few steps when I could, but that wasn't happening! I wanted to look good at the finish, but an extremely brisk walk was all I could muster. I finished in 27:54- not that breaking 28 was any magical number.

AFTERMATH: A problem I barely recognized during the race is going to be my biggest post-race issue. My achilles is bad off. It's painful, really swollen, red, and my ankle is starting to bruise. I'm going to get it checked out Wednesday. I had to get in the airport shuttle cart because I couldn't walk today. My feet and ankles are still ridiculously swollen. They look like balloons. As I type this, everything below the calf feels like it's going to pop. It's funny how GOOD my legs felt! I feel like I'm advertising too much with this report, but I do most of my long runs with Anti-Fatigue Caps and can really tell a difference when I don't. That was part of it, I think, but I am so very lucky not to have had any knee, hip/hamstring (chronic thing for me), ankle, back, etc. problems. Everything felt very very good. Honestly, nothing hurt more at 80 miles than it did at 20. A little tight here & there, but that's it.

My dehydration problem couldn't have been avoided in the conditions. I drank enough and took enough electrolytes. That was by far the scariest problem. The second incident on the last loop, I attribute to trying to counteract the dehydration with taking on too much fluid. It's never good when you get the fishbowl gut. I don't know if you can switch over from dehydration to hyponatremia that quick, but I feel like that's what happened. I experienced hyponatremia in the Great Floridian Iron-Distance triathlon & knew someone who ended up in the hospital with seizures from it that day. I was careful to make sure that didn't happen to me.

FUTURE: I had no big expectations, but I thought I could do it in 24 hours. I know I could have if I wasn't slowed way down with 2 major problems. Do I care that I didn't break 24? Not really. I don't feel like I have to prove that I can. 100 miles is 100 miles to me. You could make a case that being out there 28 hours is harder than being out there 18 hours, but of course, I'm not saying I'm better than an 18 hour runner! How do I feel about finishing? Proud. Biggest running achievement to date. Out of how many millions of runners in the world, how many finish a 100 mile race? Only about 2/3 of those who start 100 milers finish. I would guess the first timer finishing rate would be lower than that. So yeah, I'm very happy to have finished. I proved a lot to myself- that I can overcome a lot to accomplish my goals. The training alone was tough! When's the next one? Who cares?! I'm done. I don't have any desire to do it again. Maybe one day, but I highly doubt it. I'll still do 50Ks, 40 milers, 50, even 100K, but no more 100s! Did I have fun? No. I enjoyed meeting some people along the way & proving this to myself, but at least 70% of the race was the opposite of fun. Would I recommend it to other people? I would not recommend running 100- no. It was misery. IF you're going to do one, or if you already have, I would recommend Rocky Raccoon. Great organization & volunteers. Decent course that's relatively easy.