Monday, July 23, 2012

On Paces, Races and Beautiful Places

“We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, [ ] the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain.”
- Henry David Thoreau

Dolly Sods Wilderness - July 6th through July 8th

Since returning from California and the Western States Endurance Run less than four weeks ago, I've have the good fortune to spend more time in spectacularly beautiful places - blissfully large doses - while in the company of the highest-caliber people - in small and medium-sized doses.

After the Independence Day holiday, I accompanied Meredith into the Dolly Sods Wilderness, for my first multi-night backpacking adventure in as long as I can remember.  The purpose and timing of the trip had profound significance, and I got to see a wonderfully unspoiled and remote part of the East Coast.  Just reaching Dolly Sods was a journey in itself, while hiking its spectacular trails was a unique experience, as the area boasts varied ecosystems, flora and fauna, mesmerizing rock formations, expansive views and dense forest, not to mention a bounty of sweet, ripe wild blueberries at this time of year.  A few photographs which don't really begin to do justice to Dolly Sods are available here.

While the trip presented myriad challenges (physical and otherwise), it was a gift to get away from cars, computers, phones and - mostly - other people.  And, as with so many trying experiences, confronting the difficulties and getting through them has resulted in a welcome Nietzchean adaptation, as I feel stronger (about a number of things), than I have in a long time.  I hope to go back to Dolly Sods someday, and navigate the terrain more gracefully than I managed this time, . . . assuming I'm invited to do so.

Training & Nutrition

So far, working with a coach and following his prescribed training plan has gone pretty well.  I have permitted poor planning and sloppy scheduling to get in the way of full compliance with the plan, but the consistency and overall arc of training is much-improved over what I've experienced in the past year.  The most notable fail on my part was missing a scheduled 20-miler on July 15th (and aborting a re-try on July 16th), but it feels like I've been doing enough long, slow, time-on-my feet runs/hikes that missing a single long run shouldn't make a huge difference.  My weekly mileage is starting to creep up into the 60s, and I very much look forward to settling into higher mileage once again.  Getting a break from one of the more relentless heat waves of my adult life should also have a positive impact on training.

That said, the most exciting development in the health and wellness sphere has been that a change in diet has produced dramatic positive changes in my GI system.  Having met a former pro triathlete who's a certified Nutritional Consultant, I looked into what he promotes in terms of how endurance athletes should eat.  The result was a long questionnaire - and even longer personalized analysis - of my "metabolic type", which dictates not only what foods I should and shouldn't eat, but also provides for specific food pairings and macro-nutrient ratios.  I began this new regimen two weeks ago today, and have likely been somewhere around 75% faithful to the plan (zero beer simply ain't gonna happen).  The results have been so dramatically positive so quickly that I have not only had better runs overall, but have also experienced improved sleep quality, better mental alertness and lesser dependence on caffeine.  My energy levels have been consistent, and I've been notably more productive at home and at the office.  There's no "one-size-fits-all" nutritional approach, which is a key component of the Metabolic Type plan.  Anyone who's had fueling/GI issues might want to consider looking into it.  If you're so inclined, send me a comment and I'll put you in touch with my guru.

The Vermont 100 - 2012 Pacing Report

On Friday, July 20, 2012, I set off for my third consecutive year of helping out at the Vermont 100 mile race.  As this blog has contemplated in the past, my "purpose" in the running world seems to be more about serving others as a pacer than about achieving much by way of personal glory and accomplishment when racing in my own right.
The predictably spectacular summer sunset over Silver Meadow in Brownsville, VT
So, I agreed to pace my new friend Kelly this year, as she sought to improve upon her formidable 2010 time of 20 hours and 50 minutes.  My schedule leading up to race weekend was extremely hectic, with unexpected travel and work complications resulting in little downtime and not much sleep.  Still, as soon as I got close to the race HQ at Silver Meadow on Friday evening, a sense of serenity, belonging and happiness came over me.

It was great to see my close friend Nate as he revved up for his first 100-miler of the year, and to find John, Andy, Joe W., Chip, Laura, Pete, Brett and Joe H., just to name a few of the familiar friendly faces which took part in this year's race.  Kelly seemed good on Friday night, and - after being admonished for being too loud in the campground at the advanced hour of 8:45 pm - it was time to turn in for the night.

For me, Saturday brought a questionably achievable itinerary, as follows:
  • 3:45 am - wake up to catch the start before going back to sleep
  • 5:40 am - wake up again to set out to volunteer at the Pretty House aid station
  • 9:00 am - leave Woodstock, VT for Greenfield, NH to see my two younger kids get out of sleepaway camp; in proud New England tradition, it was a case of "you cahn't get the-ah, from hee-ah"
  • 1:30 pm - back to Silver Meadow
  • 2:00 pm - get to Camp 10 Bear (aka, Mile 70) and wait for Kelly
  • 4:30-5:00-ish pm - expect Kelly and settle in for 30 lovely miles in the woods and on country roads
Things went mostly according to plan, though I missed Kelly and Nate at the Pretty House aid station, which left me to wonder if they were okay.  After a brief cot nap amidst the cacophony of 10 Bear, I arose and got ready to run.  I met Kelly's excellent crew of Gene and Gene (son & father).  Kelly rolled in at about 5:15, looking pretty strong for someone with 70 miles behind her already.

We headed out of 10 Bear, only to confront one of the toughest segments of the course.  Kelly ran what she could and we power-hiked the rest.  Once we reached rolling dirt roads and single-track downhills, Kelly got down to business.  She was moving well, with no significant ill-effects from her earlier spill, blisters or the shear wear-&-tear of this massive undertaking.  We got in and out of Seabrook and The Spirit of 76 (a.k.a., West Winds, at Mile 77) smoothly, with the Genes providing fantastic, efficient support.  Kelly drank, ate and otherwise seemed to be holding up admirably.  The sun was setting, and the conditions were lovely as the temperature dropped.

Things took a turn at around Mile 80, though, when the course cruelly brings the runners within mere yards of Silver Meadow, with an all-too-appealing view of the campgrounds, and the cozy sanctity of sleeping pads and bags just waiting for someone to use them.  Kelly got a bit cranky at this point, and we agreed that she needed food (STAT!).  She moved well enough as we approached the Cow Shed aid station, but she just couldn't take in anywhere near enough calories.  Kelly's stomach simply wouldn't settle down, and it was tough to watch helplessly as the wind leeched from her sails. After an unsuccessful bathroom break, we made Bill's Ban into the goal.  There, we'd see the Genes, and Kelly would eat, ditch her hydration backpack and - hopefully - get a second (or sixteenth) wind.

It was, however, not to be.

Kelly arrived in the throes of abject exhaustion, still unable to get any substantial food into her system.  The medical volunteers flagged her immediately, and Gene the Younger and I quietly debated whether to push Kelly to get back out on the course.  Kelly complained about feeling hot, but her skin was cool to the touch.  The volunteers explained that this was a common sign of exhaustion.  In the end, reality became undeceiveable, even though Kelly might have been able to walk the last ~12 miles in 5 or so hours. That was not what she had come to do on this particular day.  So, while Kelly battled nausea and acute fatigue (she was literally falling asleep in a chair), and the clock hit 10:00 pm, the head medical volunteer (a very, very nice doctor) "made the call".  Kelly had to accept the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) and we promptly evacuated her back to the safety and comfort of her tent.  She'd run almost 89 miles, but these events are not evaluated on a grading scale.  They are pass/fail, with a single criterion determining whether the day was a good one, or not.

Upon getting Kelly into her tent, I grabbed my cooler full of tasty beer and a folding chair and headed to the finish area.  It was just past 11:00 pm, and I decided to wait for Nate to finish.  I found Charlie Z., a wonderful 60-something with whom I'd had a completely delightful time chatting last year.  Turns out that he paced Victoria Arnstein to the overall female victory in the 100K race.  Victoria is the wife of 2011 VT-100 winner Michael Arnstein, who put in a mere mortal performance this year (finishing a bit under 19 hours), just a couple of days after finishing the torturous Badwater Ultramarathon (135 miles in Death Valley).  An accomplished ultrarunner by the name of Dave James (who paced winner Brian Rusiecki to within 50 secnds of a course record) also joined us, and - despite the unabashed display of elite athlete ego and bravado (I heard A LOT about big victories, course records, national titles and how some other runners are poseurs), along with the Arnsteins bantery marital bickering - it was an entertaining way to pass the time as finishers came in.  It was especially amusing to tease Michael about how it was a good thing that Victoria performed well, lest the Arnstein family leave Vermont without a victory this year.  He didn't seem to find that as funny as the rest of us did.

Finally, as the race clock approached 22 hours, I saw Joe H. come in with his pacer.  I congratulated him and asked about Nate.  Joe told me that he'd dropped at Mile 70 due to a lingering PF/ankle issue.  That was all I needed to hear to empower me to call it a day, and I got to sleep at around 2:30 am, wondering about those intrepid souls who would be making their way through the dark for many more hours.  I slept pretty well.

The awards and lunch on Sunday were a tad chaotic, and Kelly was beleaguered by post-DNF remorse.  I tried to console her by pointing out that if she HAD walked to a 23-hour finish, she'd be similarly disappointed in herself.  And, so - on a gorgeous sunny summer Sunday - it came time to break camp and wrap up another Vermont 100.  On the heels of Western States, though, my mind wandered into previously unexplored territory: I actually started thinking about how I'd approach running the Vermont 100 in 2013 . . . . Meredith called the idea "stupid".  The fact that she's undoubtedly right is not impacting my decision.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Little Bit (or A Lot) of Most Everything - Pacer/Crew Report Westerns States 2012

For the middling amateur athlete such as yours truly, being a part of a world-class sporting event usually requires buying a ticket and watching while others do the "heavy lifting".  In the case of the Western States Endurance Run, though, the only ticket I had to buy was a plane ticket, and the "seats" I'd reserved would involve being part of Kami Semick's crew and then pacing her for the final 20 miles of what is arguably the most prestigious race in ultrarunning, a race where last year Kami finished second to Ellie Greenwood, thanks in part to a grumpy grizzly bear blocking Kami's way in the final miles.

After a long day of traveling - loaded with beer and gear, marred by travel, traffic and construction delay - my friends Jay (who was celebrating his birthday) and Holly and I finally made it to Squaw Valley late Thursday night.  We went out for a drink with Jay's runner, Ryan, and finally turned in at about 1:00 am (aka, 4:00 am EDT).

Friday would bring seeing and meeting more friends, as well as the complimentary Montrail 6K Uphill Challenge and Fun Run, taking participants up the steep climb out of Squaw Valley along the first few miles of the WS trail.  It was humbling to "race" at altitude, so I ran/hiked it, and then added some mileage, topping out somewhere around 9000 feet.  It was exhaustingly exhilarating to cover nearly 10 miles at that elevation, but it was a worthwhile experience.

  • Kami is one of the nicest, most-down-to-earth people I've met, though her gentle nature does not mask a burning intensity to compete at the highest levels of a very demanding sport
  • Co-ed sleeping arrangements involving leaky air mattresses are not that fun, a sure sign that I'm pretty far along in metamorphosing into a cranky old man
  • I have some friends who are amazing runners, some who are talented drinkers, and at least one who is both
  • Asthma and cold rain are a rough combination, as Kami had to drop out at Mile 30 because of the niggling inconvenience of BEING UNABLE TO BREATHE.  She ended up in the hospital, but was discharged the same day
  • A 100-mile point-to-point course which traverses mountains and crosses rivers appears to be considerably longer than a 100-mile loop course
  • A great way to make and cement friendships at this more "advanced" stage of life is to crew an ultrarunner, or just hang out at a 100-mile race
  • I'm addicted to pacing, apparently, as I seemed to suffer withdrawal symptoms when it appeared that I would not have a runner.  I was so sure that I would not be pacing, that I started drinking a tasty Colorado brew hand-delivered by a friend.  I had about 10 minutes' notice to change out of street clothes and get ready to run.  I climbed, descended and crossed a very cold river.  I had a blast.
  • Ultrarunners are a little bit crazy; I like ultrarunners
  • Despite some notable negatives, California is a remarkable place in many ways
  • Lack of oxygen and sleep, coupled with supranormal alcohol consumption, leads to repeated and extended bouts of giddy silliness, punctuated by short periods of hungry, tired crankiness
  • 100 miles is a long way to run, but the 100-mile running community is small . . . and some people seem to have been around and around it
  • That a person is toting the distinctive WS winner's trophy should be a dead giveaway that that person won the race (oops!)
  • After having no interest in doing a 100-mile race myself (really, truly, sincerely), WS has made my mind wander; though, as I've said to some friends, "I just can't imagine sucking at something for so long, with the more I suck, the longer it'll take" [insert clever word play here]
Looking back, Western States 2012 was like a time-defying dream sequence, where I slept in a different place with a different combination of people for 5 nights in a row, and during which I encountered countless folks who were all drawn to the same place for the same reason.  I also got to bear distant witness to some remarkable athletic feats, as the Men's and Women's Course Records fell, and the Men's Masters' Record was also re-written.  In a world where many of us may doubt our inborn capacity for doing extreme and extraordinary things, 100-mile races show that with hard work, persistence and commitment, virtually anything is possigble . . . and that when we (as a species) reach a seemingly unassailable benchmark, it's just a matter of time before someone comes along to assail it. :-)

Happy running, or whatever it is that you do which challenges and motivates you.