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The Road Back – Dirty 30(ish) Race Report

My last post was over 5 months ago.  I was motivated and enthusiastic, very much looking forward to, well, right now.  I had a lot of hope that, with hard work and a good attitude that just maybe I would be a runner again in a time horizon measured in weeks rather than years.  With the help and support of many Rocky Mountain Runners friends, my family, and good people scattered far and wide, I think I’m back to a place where I can call myself a runner again.

Green with pride, and perhaps some beer buzzing, just after the finish, with roughly half of the RMR gang.  Credit: Eric Lee.

Green with pride, and perhaps some beer buzzing, just after the finish with roughly half of the RMR gang. Credit: Eric Lee.

This past Saturday I ran the Dirty 30 50k up and down the mountains in nearby Golden Gate State Park.  It’s a rugged mostly single-track course, much of which is above 9,000′.  I ran it last year and finished middle-of-the pack.  This year’s version added a couple miles, bringing the distance to about 33 miles, with what I’m told had more than 16,000′ of combined climbing and descending.  That’s a lot of up and down for the distance (my first 100-miler at Cactus Rose had less total elevation change).

Just getting started heading up an early climb.

Just getting started heading up an early climb. I’m in the lime green shirt. Credit: Ryan Smith.

The run was a pretty good validation of the work I’ve done these last 5+ months.  I was able to finish the race strong, feeling relatively good all day, in roughly the same overall position as last year.  It took me – and everyone else who returned from last year – a good 30-60 minutes longer this year due to the course changes and heat.  Last year I ran it in 7:08 for 131st place, this year in 7:47 for 129th place.  So, all in all, I performed about the same as last year.  That’s huge, considering that a couple months ago even walking a mile was far out of the question.

Hobbling up some nice trail well into the race.  Credit: Neeraj Engineer.

Hobbling up some nice trail well into the race. Credit: Neeraj Engineer.

The whole weekend was really a nice getting-back-to-the-lifestyle affair.  About 20 of us camped out near the race course, where I was able to break in the Sportsmobile (kick-ass name TBD).  Spending the pre- and post-race with my trail buddies was uplifting, as was the on-course support by all the RMRers who were crewing, taking pictures, and running with (ok, mostly well ahead of) me.

Done, with some pep over the last mile.  Credit: Ryan Smith.

Done, with some pep over the last mile. Credit: Ryan Smith.

As usual, I ran pretty much all the flat and downhill sections, sometimes cruising, occasionally pushing a bit.  I probably hiked 2/3 of the climbs, only running when an especially good song came on or to close-in on the next runner (I think I passed 20+ runners between Mile 17 at Aid Station 3 and the end).  Two days removed I’m still sore but my ankle held together without any real pain.

The months since my achilles injury have been mostly good.  I think I did all I could to make the best of the situation, with lots of physical therapy help from Larry Meyer, and 10-20 hours/week of fitness/rehab work, combining stationary bike and hand cycle, strength training, and eventually a not-too-slow ramp-up of walking to hiking to running.  I’m still far from where I’d like to be, or where I was or can again be, with regards to overall fitness.  But, I’ve now been able to work mileage back up; the Dirty 30 marked my 5th long run in 2 1/2 weeks, 3 of which were in the final 9 day period.

Does all this mean the Western States 100 will go well?  Of course not.  But, I’m a runner again and I think I have a real shot of making it through the race.  Time cut-offs will likely be, for the first time in my racing experience, a real concern.  I’ll do what I can and knowing that I have a little bit of reason for optimism, that’s going to have to be enough.

 

 

 

6 months from today

That’s when I’m hoping/planning/fearing my start in Squaw Valley, California for what will be – if all goes well – something less than a 30-hour day to cover the 100 miles through the mountains to Auburn, California.  My focus on the Western States 100 requires daily discipline, though the steps to getting there are rather ambiguous.  I haven’t walked a step in a month, and haven’t had a legitimately long run since my lack-luster 100k around the Boulder Reservoir back in October.  It is unclear when my first post-injury, unaided steps will be, though I am repairing a bit more each day.

I’m working on rehab and general fitness quite bit, with the “easy” days consisting of 90 minutes of band stretching to strengthen my hips, which my fantastic physical therapist (shout out to Larry Meyer!) says will help the achilles’ rehab and other running issues I’ve had.  The longer days still include the 90 minutes of band stretching, done in three 30-minute sessions (often while watching Sons of Anarchy) as well as 1-2 hours on the stationary bike and/or hand bike, plus some strength training in the mix.  And, then there are the twice a week PT appointments, which are entertaining, interesting, and moderately painful.  All-in-all, it is a significant part-time job trying to get myself healthy and fit and whole again, with much support from Alison (my driver), Larry the PT, and the ongoing help and humor of friends and family, near and far.

While there’s not much to see as far as me sitting on various exercise equipment at the Y, Alison and I thought the stretching poses were worthy of sharing.  Here’s the worst of the three poses…

photo 1

Then there’s the leg-spreadder…

photo 2

And finally the belly-exposer…

photo 4

72 total minutes of static holds every single day (with 18 minutes of trying to efficiently change positions during the 8-20 second timed rest breaks) has my hips and core constantly tired but there’s no doubt I’m getting stronger, having increased either the time per rep or level of resistance roughly every other day.  It’s not running but it’s something and, combined with the cardio work, has me feeling like I’m at least maintaining fitness.

And everyone knows there is nothing more important in the history of the universe than the maintenance of my fitness.

 

 

The difference a month makes

Last month I posted about my plan to run/hike 50,000 vertical feet over the course of November.  It took me 20 days, 24 runs with no days off to hit the number, a pretty cool personal challenge during a time when I didn’t have any specific plans to race and was looking to get trail time before winter.

Contrasts are cool.  In November I got in a bit of strength training but it was all about trail time and getting vertical miles.  In December, since the achilles snap and subsequent surgery, I’ve run 0 times but it has been an interesting stretch.  In order to stay relatively mentally healthy and increase my chances of getting to and through the Western States 100, I’ve re-dedicated myself to gaining fitness, however I can get it.  That’s tricky when homebound, as I was for about a week, or unable to use my right ankle, which is still the case.

I came up with the do-everything-you-can-figure-out-to-do workout plan.  In the first 20 days of December, that’s included the following:

504 pull-ups

1560 push-ups

120 dips

110 minutes on stationary bike (just cleared to do so a couple days ago so slowly ramping volume, as advised)

200 minutes on stationary hand cycle

many hours of core exercises

3 hours of hip exercises per PT (90 minutes/day in 30 X 30 min blocks, everyday, just getting started)

perhaps a few miles of hopping on one foot, including up and down stairs – the most difficult physical activity I do

All in all, I feel like this has been a few weeks of quality total-athletic training.  All the more so when factoring in the actual surgery and recovery was in the same period.  The PT exercises are helping me with some long-time areas of weakness and I feel strong and lean.  I don’t know that this time off will make me a better runner, exactly, but I think I’m probably more all-around fit than I’ve been in quite some time.

My ankle is starting to regain flexibility, having improved by 10 degrees of movement (now able to go almost 90 degrees again!) in just two PT appointments.  Being able peddle on the stationary bike is a big step, one I didn’t think would happen for a number of weeks.  This allows me to get some leg-specific cardio exercise, better for run fitness and leg rehab than the hand bike (which I also like and will continue to use).

Sorry for the nuts-and-bolts post.  Not too witty or clever but I appreciate having so much support and this is a good way for me to let everyone know things are moving forward well!

Frankenfoot and the fantastically shrinking leg

The good news: I’m out of the cast!  The not-so-good news: the “use it or lose it” thing is real, at least as it pertains to muscles.  Today I got to have my first look at my ankle since the surgery.  Now 19 days since the injury, it’s all starting to feel like I’m inching towards recovering and despite some discomfort greater than I’ve had in about a week, I’m feeling like progress is being made.

Alison and Sagan helped create this masterpiece, bringing joy to literally tens of people.

Alison and Sagan helped create this masterpiece, bringing joy to literally tens of people.  (Rain deer smile on underside not pictured.)

Anyone who has had the misfortune of an extended stretch in a hard cast knows the experience is something of a lateral move from the injury itself.  They are bulky, itchy, and they stink.  And with a foot casted up to the calf, by design, there’s no ability to rotate the ankle, which causes intermittent cramping and chaffing issues.  So, cast removal day is something to celebrate.

We started with the not-so-precise hacking off of the outer shell, which eventually necessitated a saw that could have just as easily removed my tibia…

After many minutes of saw-aided deconstruction of the cast, I could again see my wilted, mostly hairless monstrosity of a leg.

After many minutes of saw-aided deconstruction of the cast, I could again see my wilted, mostly hairless monstrosity of a leg.

Next, the big reveal!  The fantastic Dr. Jonathan Bravman unwittingly complisulted me by commenting “you look as good as you possibly could.”  (For an atrophying, scraggly-bearded, poorly dressed, rapidly aging wannabe athlete?)  He didn’t laugh or cringe when I brought up Western States and he thinks it is a worthy goal…for a guy with this…

Part man, part centipede.  The two ends of the snapped achilles were sewn back together right under that mess.

Part man, part centipede. The two ends of the snapped achilles were sewn back together right under that mess.

While the incision site is a bit gruesome, the really alarming part was seeing the level of atrophy in my right leg.  I knew it would happen at some point to some degree but it is shocking how quickly and significantly muscle is lost.  Since I’ve been getting around the last few weeks primarily by hopping on my left foot, my left calf has gained a bit of size (though not as much as has been lost on the right) so the comparison is all the more striking…

It seems I now have three equally pathetic forearms.  Or perhaps I'm not-so-slowly transforming into a flamingo.

It seems I now have three equally pathetic forearms. Or perhaps I’m not-so-slowly transforming into a flamingo.

First PT session is tomorrow morning.  I gave the hand cycle a shot yesterday, logging 80 minutes of various 20-minute programs.  The upper body muscle fatigue on the machine kicks in long before much real cardio but it is better than nothing.  I’d say that it was the cardio equivalent of a lengthy walk with a few hills thrown in.  I’ll hit that again tomorrow and with any luck I’ll hold onto a bit of fitness while working towards an Iggy Pop-like physique.

 

WS100: Essentially impossible or just highly improbable?

It seems that’s the question I’m asking myself daily regarding my attempt to even start the Western States 100.  It is unquestionably too early to know but lately I’ve channeled my inner Lloyd Christmas and have come to the place of “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”

I’ve spoken with the head trainer of the Colorado Rapids, Jaime Rojas, who was incredibly generous with his time and expertise.  I also have been trading emails with WS100 finisher, fellow Rocky Mountain Runner, exercise physiologist and coach, Adam St. Pierre.  I got an in-depth response via podcast on a recent episode [10 minutes starting at 42:52 of the show] of Endurance Planet’s “Ask the Ultrarunner” (thanks Tawnee and Lucho!).  And of course, I’ve been talking with bunches of running friends, some with medical backgrounds and been reading online about achilles recovery.  The consensus seems to be that, if all goes well, I could be healthy enough to make it to the starting line of WS100.  That assumes no major setbacks, at least an average physiological ability to repair myself, a serious dedication to rehab, and virtually no legitimate training heading into the race.

If nothing else, this whole experience is an interesting experience and study of one.  Today is Day 1 of stationary hand cycling to work on my cardio, something I hope to do at least a few days a week the next few months.  It’ll be good to sweat from something other than hopping up the stairs.  Tomorrow is my first doctor visit since the surgery and I’m hopeful I can transition to a boot from the cast.  Wednesday is my first PT session, assuming the doc signs off on it tomorrow.  All in all, things are moving along.  The kindness of my friends and family has made a big difference, as has the seemingly endless content available on Nextflix (thank you, The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy).

I have done a little bit of grossly premature thinking about what a “solid” performance at WS100 might look like.  There’s frequent talk of a finish being most everyone’s primary goal in a 100-miler, with a good time/performance a secondary consideration.  That’s kinda true and kinda bullshit, I suspect, for highly trained runners spending $100s to enter a race for which they have trained months and often traveled great distances, dragging crew and pacers and gear along the way. This time, I can truly say that a 29:59 finish (the max time allowed) would be supremely satisfying.  To do so, I’d need to maintain an 18-minute/mile pace.  I think that, given the course profile and wild swings in typical conditions (mountain and trail terrain and temps varying from 20-110 degrees F), I’d need to be able to run at least 25-30 miles and efficiently hike the rest, without any significant stops along the way.  It’s like a puzzle I’ll have to solve with my feet.

Thanks for stopping by and I look forward to documenting the process in the months to come!

 

Broken but happy.

2013 has been one of the most remarkable years of my life.  A move from my adopted hometown (Austin) to the place I’m meant to be (Boulder).  The winding down of a nearly 20-year run as a ticket guy as I ramped up my activity in my new(ish) career as a private investor.  A change of life and lifestyle for my family, made all the easier by the great neighbors and new friends across the front range.  For most of the last decade, perhaps most of my adult life, I’ve wanted to be in the mountains, to be master of my own time, to pursue the activities and relationships of my choosing.  Now I have all that and I’ve not been disappointed.

Running is something of a selfish pursuit.  It takes lots of time, energy, focus, and some cash to do it the way that most appeals to me.  I’ve been super fortunate over the last handful of years to be able to significantly orient my days around what is, for most, a hobby.  In 2013, through late November, I ran almost every day.  I raced long and often – 8 times with the shortest being a hard mountain marathon, as well as my first 100k and my 2nd 100-miler within 10 months.  November was a special time where I set and met an ambitious solo goal.  All that was left was to wind the year down, which for the Randall family means a return to St. Louis for Thanksgiving week and a largely care-free December.

Part of my Thanksgiving tradition is a Friday morning football game with my high school friends.  It has been going on for 20 years, the first dozen or so were still tackle, until we noticed a trend of games ending earlier each year, usually as a result of one or more guys needing escort to the ER.  In the last few years, some of the guys have retired, as even flag football has proven to be a bit dangerous for us late 30-somethings.  Not only have I strongly advocated for the continuation of the tradition, I was one of the few who fought to keep it tackle before it was clear that was a losing battle.

Enough with the foreshadowing, right?  In this year’s game, early on, there was a guy who knocked legs hard with a defender.  He was out for the game.  Turns out he broke his tibia.  That seems like about as bad an injury as might be expected playing flag football but, no.  Roughly an hour into the game I released from the line (I’m still a blocker despite my precipitous drop in BMI over the years), made a catch, and turned upfield for my rare moment of glory.  Then someone threw something at my leg, maybe a chunk of concrete with rebar sticking out or perhaps a toaster oven.  It seemed odd and I felt the object pop against my heel and I was initially both confused and pissed off.  Looking down, I saw nothing but the pain was real and I hobbled off the field.

What had actually happened wasn’t all that odd:  my right achilles tendon had snapped.  It is a gross and disorienting injury – it doesn’t look like much but where there was once a tight, sinewy elastic-like band joining heel bone to calf muscle, there was nothing.  Just, as the ER doctor later put it in clinical terms, “mush”.  The pain was acute when it popped but not as bad as a stubbed toe.  The real hurting took an hour or so to set it while waiting not-so-paitiently without pain medication in the hospital.

Maybe my favorite photo ever.  This is about 10 hours after the injury.  I was passed out and Sagan crawled up on top of me and fell asleep.  I love him so much and forever it makes me get that thing where water falls out of my eyes.

Maybe my favorite photo ever. This is about 10 hours after the injury. I was passed out and Sagan crawled up on top of me and fell asleep. I love him so much and forever it makes me get that thing where water falls out of my eyes.

It’s been 11 days since the injury, 5 days since the surgery.  My left leg is constantly fatigued but getting stronger, as one-leg hopping is my primary mode of getting around, including up and down the stairs.  Though I’ve been in a cast or hard boot since the injury, I’m still training, sort of.  Every day I do an odd assortment of core work and I’m alternating days of push-ups and pulls.  Running, however, is off the table for quite some time, most likely months, not weeks.

It only hurts when I move it, or when I'm sleeping, or when I wake up.  But all I want to do is run.

It only hurts when I move it, or when I’m sleeping, or when I wake up. But all I want to do is run.

In an twist of fate that I’m still grappling with, over the weekend (two days post surgery) I was selected in the lottery to run the Western States 100.  There were over 4000 entries this year (all of whom had to complete one of the designated 50- or 100-mile qualifying races) for just 270 spots.  The race is June 28-29 in mountains of California and is arguably the most storied ultra marathon in the world.  It is certainly one of the most difficult to get into.  If it were any other race, I’d not even consider trying to ready myself for the challenge.  Fully healthy, this (or any) 100-miler is a lot to tackle; contemplating doing so 6.5 months after my sort of injury is daunting.  Good chance I don’t make it but I’m sure going to do all I can to make it to the starting line.

It’ll be an interesting, challenging, exhausting winter and spring.  I’m guessing there will be setbacks and frustrations, too.  So much of moving across the mountains is about dedication and persistence and adaptation and I consider myself quite lucky to even have the chance to test myself.

Some days I’m super motivated, others pretty discouraged.  I’ll try to write about all of it when the mood hits me.  Thanks to so many of you who have helped so much already.  Stephanie and Alex, Brianne and Bill, Tammy and Nick, Sophia and Dave, my RMR peeps – Ryan L., Alberto, Chiara, Ryan S., Silke, Matt, our awesome baby-sitters, Haley and Davis, my parents, and thoughtful, supportive friends across Boulder County and the rest of the U.S.  A special mention goes out to Alison and Sagan, who have been patient, helpful, and empathetic while I’ve been mostly cranky, stinky, and otherwise difficult.  Story has been pretty unhelpful, other than having an adorable tiny head.

Everything is a seat, everything is a glove.

Everything is a seat, everything is a glove.

 

Arbitrary November: 50k’ in 23 days

Starting in about 45 minutes I’ll be logging as much vertical ascent as I can before heading to STL for Thanksgiving. I’d wanted something to shoot for this month and don’t have the interest in racing.  While 50,000 feet of climbing (presumably with a similar amount of descending) is more like a long weekend than a 23-day goal for many of the die-hards along the front range, it’s a stout number for me to hit.  It’ll mean little time for any flat running, though some will be necessary to link up routes.

My guess is that, with possibly a few days off in the stretch, I’ll need to get about 3,000′ per day to hit the goal.  Come spring, I’m contemplating trying to hit 100k’ in a month – like some of my local rockstar buddies probably do – but that’s a bit beyond my fitness and time available at this point.

For all those who are interested, which will probably be something between nobody and perhaps my parents, I’ll update on here as I move through the next few weeks.

Fun stuff, eh?

Injured, cranky, and racing: the last 2 months and my first 100k

Last I left you I was fresh off a high from my finish at the Leadville 100.  I had no real plan, as that 100-miler was my final race planned for my busy running season.   But, my expectation was to be back to some easy, purely recreational running a week, maybe two, after Leadville.  Much of the muscular soreness was gone in the first few days after the race and mentally I was ready to go after about a week of rest.  My achilles, however, didn’t agree and it took me over a month of being an icing, doctor-visiting, anti-inflamation-cream-rubbing, cry baby before I could get back to any regular running.  Even walking was tough.

My grandmother, Elsie Levy, riding bitch on a hog.  She's 96.  This has almost nothing to do with ultrarunning.

My grandmother, Elsie Levy, riding bitch on a hog. She’s 96. This has almost nothing to do with ultrarunning.

What ultimately made the difference, besides resting and complaining?  Cutting the back out of my trail shoe so it wouldn’t rub the crazy-swollen tendon.  After a couple weeks of daily running I had my head wrapped back around the idea of squeezing in just one last race before the cold weather hit.  Any trace of running speed I may have once had was completely gone from months of long, slow running so anything short was out.

I considered backing up my barely-finished 100-miler with another 100-miler or a 24-hour race at the 24 Hours of Boulder running festival but (prudently?) opted for the junior race, a 100k (62 miles).  I’ve never run 100k in a stand-alone event; in fact, it would be the 3rd longest run I’ve done and all 3 have been in the last 12 months.   The many concurrent races at the 24 Hours of Boulder included a 50k, 100k, 100mi, 6-hour, and 24-hour, a few of which also offered relay or team versions.  The whole thing is kind of odd, even by endurance race standards.  The course is a 6.6 mile trail-and-road, out-and-back that hugs the Boulder Reservoir.  For the 100k, that meant a 2.8 mile partial lap followed by 9 full laps.  There were people constantly around but not enough that it ever felt crowded.  The 9am start was 2-5 hours later than most of my races over the last couple of years so that felt strange.  Alison and the kids were able to join me at the start – the first time the whole family has been there at the beginning of a race.  The whole atmosphere was relaxed, my expectations were pretty much nonexistent, I was just going to go at whatever pace felt right until I made it to the end.

A picture of my ever-beautiful wife, circa 1922?

A picture of my ever-beautiful wife, circa 1922?

In the days leading up to the race I made a commitment, to myself and the family, not to stress about any aspect of the run.  I’m happy to say I succeeded, drinking freely, staying up too late, not really resting up at all.  It showed once the running started.  The combo of being detrained from my Leadville taper, race, injury, and time off, plus the possible overtraining in the two weeks before the 100k had me flat all day.  My sometimes 9-minute/mile pace early on faded to 14-15 minute pace in the later hours of the race but I moved steadily throughout, walking for a minute or two every couple miles to let my knees recover (they hurt pretty much all day).

Hurting a little, smiling for no good reason, already a little bored just a few hours into my all day 100k.

Hurting a little, smiling for no good reason, already a little bored just a few hours into my all day 100k.  Photo credit: Karen Kantor

 

It was weird to be so committed to finishing while not really caring about the event or my performance.  And, when I crossed the line 14 hours and 48 minutes after I started, I wasn’t really that tired.  With a field of only 11 runners in the solo 100k event, I was dead last of the 8 finishers.  In a great twist of irony, due to the small field I “won” my first ever tangible race award, a 2nd Place medal for my age group. Interestingly and very cool, the 5 women who started the race not only all finished, they took overall spots 1-5.

Ultimately, I think the event was (for me) kinda dumb.  I just wanted to do something difficult again so I did.  But there wasn’t really any great love for the endeavor, no huge emotional swings, no real satisfaction.  I was happy enough to be done but, mostly, it was a big blah.  I mean, I know I can cover the distance, even if I have to walk all day long.  I know I can possibly even be competitive if I train for this sort of event.  And I know that it should feel like a big accomplishment.  But, running a boring course over and over again, almost entirely solo, when my body and mind aren’t into it, is just a big nothing.  Maybe a good workout, I guess, and another long ultra to give me that much more confidence next time I have a long day ahead but that’s about it.

It seems ridiculous to just get up, drive 5 minutes, run literally all day long, and come home and shower and go to bed.  I’m not sure if I’ll do a similar event again but, strangely enough, I might.  I still like the pushing myself aspect, even if I’m not pushing hard.  And, especially with friends and maybe as part of a relay, this kind of event still has some appeal.  The best part, perhaps, is that I didn’t really even need to take a day off after the race.  This afternoon I was able to hike-run Sanitas, a Boulder locals’ favorite that is technical and steep.  I guess that’s the upside of not racing hard.

There were some flurries at the Sanitas summit today.  Winter is coming, for real.  I’m thinking some snowshoe racing might be a nice change of pace.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

2013 Leadville 100: The Big One

I’d been hesitant to blog in the weeks leading up to my shot at running the Leadville 100.  My training this year has been solid and I was reasonably happy with my lead-up races since May.  But, there were jitters and creeping uncertainties, including concerns from a fairly big fall down the rocky descent of Mt. Sanitas two weeks before my biggest race of the year.  Cut, bruised, and hobbling was not the ideal physical state leading into my taper and I had some real worries that the injuries would factor heavily in my chances to cover the 100-mile mountain course in Leadville.

Luckily, my body healed up reasonably well but my head was all sorts of a mess.  Not only was the Leadville 100 my biggest event of the year, it was one I had mentally penciled in years before as something of a pinnacle of ultra running.  Alison and the kids were coming along, the first time for any of them to see me race in Colorado.  My Austin buddy, Andres Capra, was using his once-a-year vacation block to come pace me at his own expense.  My other pacer, Matt Wiencek, was again selflessly stepping up to be at my side to face whatever might come in 100-miler.  Many assorted friends from across the Front Range and beyond would be out there, including virtually the entire Rocky Mountain Runners crew.  Almost everyone in my life knew I was doing this race and it is one of the few ultras that even non-runners might have heard of.  So, the pressure was on.

Me (L), Alberto (M), and Ryan (R) looking more confident than we were feeling pre-race.

Me (L), Alberto Rossi (M), and Ryan Lassen (R) looking more confident than we were feeling pre-race.

After my first 100-miler finish last year at the Cactus Rose 100, I knew I had one primary issue to address: how could I run more and hike less to cover 100 miles faster on my second attempt at the distance?  10 months and a couple thousand miles of trail running later, I still don’t have the answer.  What I do have, however, is a coveted finish on the iconic Leadville 100 course.  It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty but I got it done in in 28 hours, 21 minutes, and 55 seconds.  943 runners started, only 494 finished within the 30-hour time limit, with over a quarter of all finishers doing so in the final hour of the race.  I ran-stumbled across the line in 287th place.  Now, for the 28+ hours leading up to that point…

Lots can and often does go wrong in a 100-mile race.  Weather is unpredictable.  Gear can be unreliable or get lost, broken, or forgotten.  Blisters, stomach cramps, vomiting, dehydration, over-hydration, headaches, falls, hypothermia, hyperthermia, sunburn, windburn, chaffing, cuts, toenail damage, breathing problems, blurred vision, sprains, incoherence, hallucinations, bugs bites and stings, and crippling fatigue are some of the better known maladies but the full list is quite a bit longer and the affects often more extreme at a race like Leadville.  Amazingly, I didn’t have a single one of these issues.  That, however, doesn’t mean that the day lacked adversity.

The allure of Leadville is that the course throws a little of everything at the runners.  Obviously, even for a well trained runner, 100 miles is a big chunk to knock off in one go.  Many friends have asked me when runners stop to sleep.  Answer: very few runners stop for much of anything and almost none stop to sleep, me included.  The lowest elevation of the course is over 9,200′; most of the course is over 10,000′ and there are multiple points over 12,000′.  That means very little oxygen, which is kind of a problem for people who need to breathe.

A rough course profile but it gives an idea of what runners contend with at the Leadville 100. Credit: http://www.run100s.com

Starting line temps are in the 30s, daytime temps can jump to near 80 degrees which, due to the thin atmosphere of the high mountains, feels much warmer.  Once the sun sets, temps again drop to near freezing.  There are at least five significant mountain climbs and descents, most prominent among them being the climb up and over Hope Pass that then descends to the turnaround point, where the runners are sent right back up the same mountain for a total of nearly 12,000′ of combined climbing and descending in just a 20-mile section of the course between miles 40-60 of the race.  In total, there is roughly 30,000′ of elevation change over the 100 miles, more than twice what I faced in my first 100-miler at Cactus Rose.  Twice runners cross a river with the aid of a rope to keep from being swept away.  The terrain varies from dirt and even stretches of paved roads to single- and double-track mountain trails, to rocky switchbacks and grassy fields.  Oh, and the actual distance is said to be about 102 miles, not 100 miles.

With about 1000 runners starting the race and the out-and-back format, there are many miles of tight passes, including steep uphills and downhills, where weary racers jockey for position and pace, often nearly missing collisions of bodies and packs and trekking poles.  And, unfortunately, there are many actually collisions, which can rattle the body and mind when trying to move quickly and navigate narrow trails that often has steep drop offs.

Alpacas are used to transport aid station provisions near the top of Hope Pass.  An odd and much anticipated sight, though the uniqueness of the experience is somewhat lost on the 1000 or so hypoxic racers.  Photo: Andres Capra

Alpacas are used to transport aid station provisions near the top of Hope Pass. An odd and much anticipated sight, though the uniqueness of the experience is somewhat lost on the 1000 or so hypoxic racers. Photo: Andres Capra

It is a long, long race for everyone.  Only 12 runners finished under 20 hours; many runners – men and women – who routinely win races around the country took much longer and many hundreds of very fit, very experienced runners didn’t finish at all.  So, it’s hard to give even a brief section-by-section overview of my experience and I’m not going to try.  The broader experience was something like this: I ran easily for most of the first 40 miles, then my knees started aching to the point where I could run no faster than I could hike.  So, I hiked.  For the majority of the last 60+ miles.

Coming up Hope Pass inbound, around mile 55.  Happy because climbing was the only thing that didn't hurt.  And I was probably a little low on O2. Photo: Andres Capra

Coming up Hope Pass inbound, around mile 55. Happy because climbing was the only thing that didn’t hurt. And I was probably a little low on O2. Photo: Andres Capra

Since my knees screamed on the downhills, where I normally move quite well, I would have to step aside to let entire groups of runners pass.  In what felt like bizarro world, I was able to pass dozens of racers up every hill, as my energy was strong almost the entire race and hiking even fast uphill didn’t hurt.  Up both sides of Hope Pass, up the climb out of Twin Lakes, up the grueling miles-long Powerline climb in the middle of the night starting at mile 77, all day and all night I was able to cruise uphill.  It was really weird but great to essentially maintain pace on what are generally considered the toughest stretches of the course.  Unfortunately, the pace I was maintaining was far slower than I’d have liked.

A step back to the turnaround at mile 50.  That’s where I picked up Andres, who paced me back up and over Hope Pass down into mile 60 at Twin Lakes.  It was a huge morale boost to have him with me and really meaningful to be back on Hope Pass together four years after we teamed up for the 2009 TransRockies Run (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).  Andres tried mightily to get me to move a bit faster on the downhills and flats but, sadly, my knees just wouldn’t cooperated.

Twin Lakes aid station, roughly 60 miles in.  As happy as I was to see my family, the smile is at least in part due to the 45 seconds in the seated position.

Twin Lakes aid station, roughly 60 miles in. As happy as I was to see my family, the smile is at least in part due to the 45 seconds in the seated position.

It was really nice to see so many friends all day on the course racing and pacing and crewing.  But, it was only at mile 60 where I got to briefly reunite with Alison, Sagan, and Story, who were all wonderfully sweet and supportive.  It would be another 12 hours until I’d see them at the finish.

Story ran right up to me and I couldn't not pick her up.  Plus, it would have been bad form to poke her away with the trekking poles.  Photo: Alison Randall

Story ran right up to me and I couldn’t not pick her up. Plus, it would have been bad form to poke her away with the trekking poles. Photo: Alison Randall

Matt picked me up for his 26-mile pacing shift.  Matt is, unquestionably, as solid a guy as I’ve ever met.  In the many (8?) hours it took me to cover just a marathon distance he didn’t once complain or show a hint of impatience or frustration, which would have been completely understandable.  As expected, he kept me fed and focused, part Sherpa, part therapist, as I trudged through some of the darkest, loneliest miles of the course. Through my nearly constant grunting (my Achilles swelled to the size of an apple), Matt moved me forward and got me to the final aid station in good spirits.

Matt and Andres readying for a handoff.  These guys saved my day.  Photo: Alison Randall

Matt and Andres readying for a handoff. These guys saved my day. Photo: Alison Randall

Andres was rearing to go at mile 87, eager to push me hard to the finish line.  His enthusiasm was great, even if somewhat wasted on me.  I made it clear that there would be no more running, a guarantee I broke a handful of times in those final 4 hours but mostly it was a power hike to the finish.  With only about an hour to the end my mood, which had been genuinely good all race, went south.  I guess that’s ok, as it was my only really low point of the entire race and it didn’t keep me from moving.  Another sunrise – my second since starting the race – came and with it I knew I was going to finish.  My primary time goal of sub-25 hours was out of reach by halfway, my secondary goal of sub-27 hours slipped away a few hours prior, but I was beyond pleased to know that I was, indeed, going to finish.

Less than 100 yards to the finish, wanting to pick up Sagan and hug Matt and Andres but certain those would be bad decisions.

Less than 100 yards to the finish, wanting to pick up Sagan and hug Matt and Andres but certain those would be bad decisions. Photo: Silke Koester

The very final mile to the finish line is an entirely uphill road into the heart of Leadville.  With nothing left to lose, I committed to running it with Andres.  My stride was so short that the heal of my front foot would barely extend beyond the toe of my rear foot but, goddammit, I was running!  As I approached the line, Alison and Story were there to cheer and Matt and Sagan joined Andres and me in the final steps – a moment that will be part of me forever.

Yeah, a smile.  Photo: Silke Koester

Yeah, legit happy. Photo: Silke Koester

I expected I’d cry but the fatigue and satisfaction manifested only in smiles.  With the help of Andres and Matt, the love of my family, and support of friends near and far, I finished the Leadville 100 run.  Now I could sit down.

Oooh, a thingy I can wear!  Photo: Silke Koester

Said in the head of baby Story: “Oooh, a thingy I can wear!”  Appearance by a fully reclined me in the background.  Photo: Silke Koester

I had been trying to get updates on my racing friends all day and night.  When only half of starters even finish the race, it is hard to know what to expect when so many friends are out there.  I had spent the previous couple of days with fellow racer friends Alberto Rossi and Ryan Lassen, along with our crews and pacers.  Our mutual friends, Mike Oliva and Greg Salvesen, were on the course.  Harry Hamilton, who I befriended and paced last year, was back to better his time.  I had heard that a couple of the guys were possibly going to drop at different points and, having witnessed their level of difficulty earlier in the race, it looked like some consolation was going to be in order for those whose races didn’t pan out.  But, remarkably, every one of my friends finished!  Alberto finished 75th overall in 23:44, an impressive result for any runner but stunning for a guy running his first 100-miler.  Harry improved by nearly an hour over his 2012 run, finishing in 24:17.  Mike Oliva, who was curled up in a ball on the ground repeatedly throughout the race, somehow pieced together a bunch of 6-minute miles in the second half of the race, going from a seemingly certain DNF to a sub-25 hour finish.  Ryan suffered mightily but came through just 7 minutes ahead of me, Greg recovered enough from his difficulties to cross in 29:11.

There are so many friends and family members who supported me both in Leadville and elsewhere.  The biggest thanks to Alison and the kids for their support and sacrifices for this lengthy race build-up, which included 7 out-of-town ultras in just the last 14 weeks and to my pacers, Matt and Andres, for literally being by my side to see me through the journey.  As always, love to my parents, siblings, and curiously confused family spread across the country.  The Rocky Mountain Runners have been invaluable for both training and emotional support this year, including (but not limited to!) Alberto Rossi, Ryan Lassen, Mike Oliva, Ryan Smith, Silke Koester, Cassie Scallon, Mike Grady, Leila Degrave, Kerrie Bruxvoort, and Neeraj Engineer.  To my other CO running buddies, Sherpa John Lacroix, Marty  Kibiloski, Brett Astor, Mike Sandrock, Anders Mavis, Dave Smitty Smith, Peter Hegelbach, Greg Nash, Eric Lee, and Basit Mustafa, thanks.  To my veteran ultra badass and role model, Olga King, you’ll always be the first, best ultra runner in my life.  And to my longtime friend and burgeoning runner, Josh Wallach, it has been awesome to have a fan.

A long day done, with my boys.

A long day done, with my boys.  Photo: Silke Koester

2013 Silver Rush 50 – race report

For stretches over the last few years, I’ve been a runner in the Rocky Mountains.  This past weekend, I really got to feel what it’s like to be a Rocky Mountain Runner.  I won’t again go into the remarkable accomplishments of my front range friends but I sure was happy to be in their company for another weekend in the high country.  This time around, we were out in Leadville for the Silver Rush 50-miler, a mostly jeep road, out-and-back route just east of town.

I crashed the night before at the Leadville Hostel, which had a quaint homeyness about it, though the all-night chain-saw snoring bunkmate made the experience less than ideal.  Up at 3:40am for my 3rd huge meal in the last 10 hours, I was out the door hanging with my runner buddies well before the 6am start.

There is a great post about the race on the Rocky Mountain Runners website with plenty of photos (I’m the emaciated-looking one, which is saying a lot in a group of ultra-runners).  It’s worth a quick look if you want to see who’s who and how the course looked, at least through the lens of our ever-growing support crew.  I didn’t know until I was out running that so many friends would be there just to spectate but it was a super spirit lifter to see Ryan Smith, Silke Koester, Cassie Scallon, and Kerrie and John Bruxvoort multiple times out on the course, cheering like I was a front-runner (I wasn’t), as well as the RMRers that were out there racing: Ryan Lassen, Matt Wiencek, Neeraj Engineer, and Leila DeGrave.

There’s a good bit of climbing but with my slowly adapting mountain legs, most was runnable:

It didn't feel quite as steep as this looks but it was almost entirely up or down, with my watch recording only 9 minutes of flat time in the entire day.

It didn’t feel quite as steep as this looks but it was almost entirely up or down, with my watch recording only 9 minutes of flat time in the entire day.

I didn’t feel great most of the day, partly due to an unsettled stomach, partly due to jitters about my final long run before the LT100, partly due to cumulative fatigue from so much long racing and training over the last few months (15 long runs in 10 weeks).  So, I went in without tapering, knowing running on tired legs for 50 mountain miles would be good training.  And when the hurt started early on, I kind of expected it and just settled into quiet suffering mode. My brother and sister-in-law did a great job of capturing my essence in the photo comparison below.
Image

More than a passing resemblance?

Thing is, I did just fine, I think.  I never felt great but never felt like finishing was in question.  I was able to run all the flats and downs and the majority of the ups.  Leaving the aid station at halfway, where Sherpa John was unexpectedly there to provide precision crewing services (he’s racing the VT 100 this weekend), I was at 4:47.  John asked if I was shooting for sub-10 hours, and I said I didn’t really know anymore.  Going into the race my best guess was 10:45 but I’d be happy with anything under 11 hours, all considered.  But, his question stuck in my brain and gave me something to shoot for for the next handful of hours.  So I got to it.

Forcing a smile on the climb out of the aid station at halfway.  Credit: Ryan Smith

Forcing a smile on the climb out of the aid station at halfway. Credit: Ryan Smith

The entire return to the finish, I knew it would be close.  It meant no walking on the shallower climbs.  It meant getting in and out of the remaining aid stations in 1-2 minutes each, tops.  And, for the final 5-6 miles of the race, it meant not even stopping to pee since it looked like I might miss 10 hours by just 30-60 seconds.  But, with the finish in sight down the final short, steep decent, I gave what I had left and crossed the line in 9:57:24, 121st place out of 403 finishers (449 starters). SR50 Finisher Certificate

Finisher's medal: bottle-opener on the back since, ya know, it is Colorado.

Finisher’s medal: bottle-opener on the back since, ya know, it is Colorado.

It is sometimes hard for me to keep perspective, spending time day after day with some of the top ultra-runners in the country, along with a whole lot of others who are merely very, very good.  Our friend Leila, just two weeks after placing 9th at the Western States 100 (the most competitive 100-miler in the U.S.), not only won the Silver Rush 50 (13 minutes ahead of 2nd place) but broke the course record in the process.  She was 15th overall, with our male friends finishing in 23rd, 30th, and 50th places.  Again this is out of 449 dedicated, experienced, long-distance trail runners.  The fastest guys and some of the equally talented girls in our friendly group didn’t run this one so we’d likely have had a few more spots in the top 20, conceivably taking up a the entire women’s podium and a spot or two on the men’s side.

I was well back in 121st place, getting just as much praise from this unique group.  It is sweet and humbling and encouraging but as much as I love to run with them and would love to run like them, it isn’t going to happen.  Not ever, no matter how many 100-mile training weeks I put in, no matter how dialed in I get my sleep and recovery and diet.  No matter how much I WANT to be up at the front, it isn’t going to happen, at least not in the highly competitive Colorado trail racing scene.  But, I’m getting better.  Being able to run 50 tough miles on tired legs in the thin air of the high mountains in less than 10 hours is something I couldn’t do before.  Now, I’m able to do it, feel good enough to hang out afterwards, and be back to running two days later.  I have the confidence and fitness to go out and run a marathon – or perhaps a 50k or even a 50-miler – any day of the week.  I have not only run endurance but all-around fitness and good health that makes like more satisfying, even a little bit easier.  And I do, for the time being, have visible ab muscles, which I think is cool even if Alison doesn’t care.  Most importantly, I’ve found myself drawn into a community of like-minded friends, despite our quite diverse backgrounds, goals, and levels of talent.

Big picture, this is exactly what I’ve wanted out of life for quite a long time.  I fully realize how fortunate I am to have found a place and lifestyle and people to help me be me.  Every day presents another opportunity for adventure, improvement, and camaraderie.  With the love, support, and very different interests of Alison, Sagan, Story, and other friends and family, runners and non-runners alike, I’ve found balance.  To all of you, a huge thanks now, and more thanks to come.  I’ll need all the support I can get: the Leadville 100 is just 32 days away.