Sunday, February 22, 2015

Because in Texas, Four 100-milers Just isn’t Enough for a Grand Slam (pt 2)

From October 2014 through February 2015 (3 ½ months), I raced 512 miles in just over 100 hours. In addition to that, I ran 670 ‘training’ miles between races. I thought I’d interview myself and let you know a bit about the races, why I did it, how I got ready for it, and how you can do it too. After answering the first question, I decided not to post all of it at once. So I will periodically post new segments. Here is the second question.

2.  Why did you run all those races?

Five years ago (2011), I finished my first 100-miler and it was truly love at first sight. I heard about Cactus Rose and did that one too, telling my wife that “These two races will be more than enough to satisfy me.” Then a few years passed and I heard about the Tejas 300 and just had to add Bandera 100k to the mix. “Now I’ll be just fine.” And I was—for a couple years. Then some new 100-milers started popping up, and I just couldn’t say no to them. Their tractor beams pulled me in like Yogi Bear to a picnic basket. I was mesmerized upon seeing them online and knew that I had to run them all. Not once did I ever think that I couldn’t do it. I was certain from the beginning that I’d be finishing them all. The short recovery time between the races (3-4 weeks max) was also appealing. My freshman year in high school I recall my coach saying to me one day as we were all out running some 7-mile course through town that I was a machine. During a conversation with a great friend from that team I mentioned this, wondering if that coach ever knew what would become of me.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be someone that can win a big race or even run a 14-hour 100-miler, but I do know that I can go out and run like a machine. I’m not gonna ever win the 100m dash or the 10,000m run. I just don’t think I’ll ever put in the time and effort required to be that fast. And I’m ok with that. I like running for enjoyment. I don’t want it to turn into something that hurts me everyday (instead of just during races). What I can do is run long distances with short recovery periods and still run them competitively.

So why did I run them all? Simply because they were there. If more 100-milers popped up and they weren’t an incredible financial burden, I’d do them all. I enjoy them. They make me who I am. I feel like I can accomplish something that most people can’t even fathom of doing themselves (though I think anyone can complete the distance). The races push me to mental and physical limits that I can’t find anywhere else and I feel stronger after completing them. And I’m sure there are tons more reasons why I did this. They’re probably the same reasons you choose to run your 100-mile races.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Because in Texas, Four 100-milers Just isn’t Enough for a Grand Slam

From October 2014 through February 2015 (3 ½ months), I raced 512 miles in just over 100 hours. In addition to that, I ran 670 ‘training’ miles between races. I thought I’d interview myself and let you know a bit about the races, why I did it, how I got ready for it, and how you can do it too. After answering the first question, I decided not to post all of it at once. So I will periodically post new segments.

1.       Which race was the hardest?
·         Cactus Rose 100
It’s Cactus Rose, and if you’ve ran it before, enough said. If you’ve only looked at it on paper, it doesn’t seem too difficult. There’s only about 7000 feet of elevation gain. It’s basically at sea level and although there are some steep spots, they are short and there are plenty of relatively flat spots. The webpage does mention the race as “A very nasty trail race...where everything stings, scratches, or bites.” It also states that there are “bonus points for blood, cuts, scrapes, and puke.” It may even mention that there are rocks on the course as well as a cactus called sotol along the trails. You might have even read someone’s race report about how tough the course is, thinking “Yeah, but I’m sure I’m tougher than them.” But you have to experience the course yourself before you really know what a toll it will take on you. And I’ll go as far to say that you have to do the 100-miler, because I still feel pretty good after just 50 miles. I’ve never been as sore after a race as I have been after Cactus Rose. Though I must say, it seems I have been less sore in recent years. However, that may be due to forgetting the pain fun I had after a year or two had passed.

·         Big Cedar 100
A very beautiful course. There are wooded sections and open grassland sections. The wooded parts had numerous switchbacks, and it was fun trying to imagine how they’d look from above. This inaugural race was turning out to be a great race with some super weather, in spite of the forecast. But then the rain came. And the race as we had so far experienced it—was over. The wooded sections were still fine and very runnable. But the open grasslands turned into the stickiest shoe-sucking mud I’ve ever had to run through. And by run, I mean trudge, because there probably wasn’t a single person on the course that could run for more than a couple steps before their shoes were three inches higher and they had to stop at every tree along the trail to kick off the mud, only to do it again ten seconds later. What helped me not even consider dropping out was that I was already about 72 miles into the race and I only had a little more than a lap to complete in the mud (whereas others had 2+ laps still to go). I was on pace to finish in about 18-19 hours, but the fun in the mud turned that into a 22-hour finish. I don’t think I had ever been so happy to be done with a race.

·         Brazos Bend 100
A flat race. Literally. There was one “hill” that might have been fifteen feet tall and a tiny valley that was about as far down and up. I had no idea as to how to approach this race. Usually there are hills of some sort that I can walk. But this race was going to be entirely runnable. And this meant going fast—for 100 miles. I wasn’t sure I could competitively complete 100 miles of non-stop running. And it didn’t help that I went into the race wanting a really fast time. The whole race was nice and smooth, except for the beginning of the fourth lap. I just wasn’t there mentally and it took me seven miles to get back into it. A tough course if you’re looking for natural breaks from running. You have to be disciplined to not go out too quickly and burn out (though this is true of all races).

·         Bandera 100k
The whole day was gonna be cold (30°F). I had, for the first time ever, had a slight injury (my right knee was hurting a bit). And I was a few days past having been fake sick (I don’t get sick) with some throat illness. My original goal was to finish in the low 10-hour range. But the conditions just didn’t help with that. My knee had a dull ache almost the entire race, but it never got worse. That made me happy and so I just kept running on it. There were a few spots that were muddy, but it wasn’t anything compared to Big Cedar mud. I kinda laughed as I went through it. The weather was cold, but not so cold that I would freeze. I just had to keep moving and not let the cold set in. Upon finishing, I quickly found a heater, some clean and dry clothes, some food, and headed out. Not the best conditions for a fast race, but the course was good enough. And even though the park is full of sotol and rocks, somehow running only 62 miles through it all just doesn’t faze me much.

·         Rocky Raccoon 100
This is my favorite race. It’s nearby our house. We’ve camped there numerous times. I have the course memorized. And it was my fifth time running it. I always get excited when it’s time for Rocky. The only hard part is that it’s five laps. And sometimes it’s hard to run yet another lap. But I made an effort to prepare myself mentally as I completed each lap so I would not hit a low point at the beginning of the next lap. I might be biased in saying this, but this was probably the easiest of all the races.

·         Rocky Raccoon 50
This was just a fifty miler, but recovery time was limited to only one week. I needed to do this race. Not so I could show off, but so that I could be better mentally prepared for what lie in store for me come this fall when I attempt to run Cactus Rose 100 followed six days later by Big Cedar 100. But back to this race. I wanted to run this race in seven hours. My first lap was right on schedule for that pace. A few miles into the second lap and I knew that that pace was gone and it was replaced by a slower let’s-just-make-it-to-the-end pace. There were a few times when my legs/tendons really hurt, but I was still running the whole course (more or less). I wasn’t too happy to start my last lap, but 8 miles into that lap and I was starting to get happy (and teary-eyed at moments). I was walking more than I wanted to, but I was still moving and I had a great friend with me to keep me company and a lot happier than if I’d have been alone. I don’t know if my mind set aside 50 miles of energy for me, but I was definitely out of gas when I crossed the finish. My legs hurt. My feet hurt. And I was done. That race hurt the most.

·         So, which race was the hardest? Normally I’d say Cactus Rose without a second thought. But I think that the mud at Big Cedar may have edged it out this time.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Rocky Raccoon 100 + 50 (31 Jan + 7 Feb 2015)

I Don’t Know Why He Swallowed That Fly. Perhaps He’ll Die.

I didn't swallow a fly. And I didn't die (though my wife wasn't too happy about my post-race shenanigans). But for some reason, I decided to run both the 100-miler and the 50-miler (which were on consecutive weekends). Some people call it crazy. Well, most people call it crazy. But I knew that come this fall, Big Cedar 100 got pushed forward a few weeks and will end up being literally six days after Cactus Rose 100. This “crazy” weekend was to be a mental booster to help me know that I could do back-to-back 100-mile races.

The 100-miler

I walked over to the start/finish line with Amy. We once again didn’t get pizza (my favorite pre-race breakfast), but I did have a couple EPIC bars and some Hammer Gels. They definitely get some quick fuel into me for the long haul in front of me. My mom was in town and she stayed at our house with our crazies. That left Amy and me for another one of our fun weekend-long dates.

I found Melinda Coen at the drop bag area and we all talked for a bit until we had to walk over to the start. We were a ways back when the race started and got caught in some slower traffic, but it never really bothers me. I figure that unless you’re trying to break a course record, an extra ten minutes of getting around other runners (and walking in the narrow parts) for the first couple miles isn’t going to hurt your race at all. I don’t remember much of what we talked about, but it doesn’t matter. Just having someone to talk to and run with you makes the miles fly by. And running with my teammate Mel for the first 10-15 miles of a race is something that I really look forward to every race. But then she makes me go run by myself, and the mental part of the race begins.

I don’t have much experience running ultras that aren’t multiple loops. There was a 100k that I did last summer (River of no Return) in Idaho that was just a single loop. But my experience lies in running the same loop 3-5 times. Rocky Raccoon is five laps. And it takes some special mental preparation to get going after you complete a lap. The first lap is always a breeze, and leaving on the second lap is usually not a big deal. But after that, leaving for the start of your next lap gets harder every time you come in. Last year was no exception. The start of my fifth lap was miserable. ‘Why can’t this just be an 80-mile race?’ I asked myself over and over as I trod on towards Nature Center (aid station; mile 83) and DamNation (aid station; mile 86). However, this year I wanted to be more prepared for this. As I was finishing each lap, I told myself that I was going to get in, be happy to see Amy and anyone else, and then I was going to have to leave them and start another long journey before I could see them again. Nature Center (aid station) was only a few miles away and happiness was just around the corner. It helped me immensely as I constantly made little goals: Just get to __ aid station; just get out of the wooded area; just get to this bridge and then the dam. Every time I got to that spot, I was happier. And it worked for almost the entire race. There were only a few miles during the start of my third lap when I felt like I wasn’t mentally into the race. Otherwise, I felt great mentally and that helped out with how I felt physically.
Besides the mental aspect of the race, there were a few physical things that I did differently. First, I tried to run more of the hills. My advice to inexperienced 100-milers will always be to go slow and walk every uphill (no matter how small). But this was my fifth time running this course and my eleventh 100-mile race. I felt like if I wanted a faster time, I needed to do something different. I was a little hesitant about running up some of the hills I had walked in past years, worrying about how I’d handle this hill in a couple more laps. The ‘bigger’ hills I still walked. But as I approached the top, I tried running as soon as possible. The short walk gave my legs a well deserved break and the quick return to running helped keep my overall pace where I wanted it.

Second, I tried to make sure I ate more solid food. Peanut butter and jelly quarters were great. And although I don’t really like them because they seem to just sit in my mouth forever, I really think they’re a great fuel. I also did take various Hammer Gels along the course. My favorite is the espresso flavor, though I don’t know why. Maybe I like it because it’s a really strong flavor (and I don’t drink coffee). Third, I’ve started to carry a water bottle with me more often. For the longest time, unless it was hot during one of our Texas winter races, I never carried anything with me (including water). There were aid stations every five miles or so and I felt fairly accustomed to running without water (it’s how I run all summer in Houston). When I got to an aid station, I’d chug a bunch of water, HEED, Gatorade, Coke, ginger ale, more water, various food/snacks, and then head out again with nothing in hand. And it worked fine for me. I don’t know if I’d recommend it to anyone else, but it worked for me through numerous 100-mile races. But as I have wanted my times to get faster, I felt that perhaps a more constant water and fuel source would help me achieve that; that I couldn’t just go hard for five miles with nothing, then chow down, and go again. I believed that taking in the same food, but doing it little by little, my body would better be able to use it.
Awards for finishing four 100-milers and a 100k

And this is how the rest of my race went by. It was very uneventful (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). But at the same time, I kept myself mentally happy by setting small goals and I kept my muscles happy by giving them enough fuel along the way (and by carrying a water bottle). As I came in to finish my fourth lap, I was happy to see the timer at 13 hours. I was definitely going to have my best race for this course today. My fifth lap had no mentally challenging parts. I took a few extra breaks that I hadn’t on previous laps, but I quickly got my legs back in action. I continued to make small happy goals throughout that last loop (as if the 15 miles to the finish wasn’t enough). As I came around the last turn, I saw my ultimate happy spot. I forgot to call out to Amy so she could record my finish. But I came through and was elated (though not enough to want to run another lap). I had now finished my third Tejas 300, and along with that I had finished four 100-milers and one 100k in just over three months. My finishing time was 16:44:16. Although it was about ten minutes slower than my time a month and a half earlier at Brazos Bend, I felt so much better during this entire race.

I might have received strong recommendations to go to the hospital and get an IV for dehydration after passing out a couple times a few hours after I finished. But that’s not the important part of the day.

The 50-miler
I didn’t do this race last year, and this would only be my second 50-miler ever. In addition to that, I had just run the 100-miler the previous weekend. But here I was to complete my fun little adventure which included a whole bunch of races in three and a half months.

Lorenzo and I. Photo Courtesy of Jeff Ball.
At the start/finish, I was alone. Amy was still in bed with the kids. I wandered around trying to kill time before the race started. I felt pretty good, considering what I had been through. I was hoping for a 7-hour finish time. With that, I would complete 150 miles over two races on consecutive weekends in just under 24 hours. I didn’t know if that was good, but it sounded good to me, and it was what I was shooting for.

There weren’t many people that I knew who were going to be running this race. But I found one of my favorite running buddies, Lorenzo Sanchez. We’d missed each other at Cactus Rose and then again at Bandera and he didn’t run the 100-miler here at Rocky Raccoon the previous week. We got talking and then the race started. We were closer to the front and didn’t have much traffic like I had had last week. The course was nice and the weather was cool. One of my favorite parts of this course is the loop from DamNation (aid station) back to DamNation. For the 100-miler the loop is six miles, but for the 50-miler has a cut-off that makes the loop just under three miles. We ran everything the first lap and finished in 2:22, which was right where I was hoping to be. A couple miles into the second lap and I was changed. I told Lorenzo, “If you have any dreams of a good finishing time, you’re gonna have to go ahead, ‘cause this is gonna be my pace. I can’t keep up that first lap pace.” But he stayed with me. He wanted to run this with me and see me finish. I thanked him a bunch and told him that I wished to think that I could be so selfless to have paid for a race, having had certain time/place goals in mind, only to end up running a slower race with a friend just to help them through it. I don’t know if I could do it, though I like to think that I would. But then Lorenzo told me, “You can think of it as selfless if you want. But it’s me who gets to see you in your last race as you accomplish this amazing feat. I’m getting a front row seat.” As we ran the rest of the race, I was nearly in tears many times as I thought about him running with me and finally being done with this.

The second and third laps had their moments; bad moments that is. I recently became an ambassador for Altra and received a pair of shoes, the Superior 2.0. Altra is big about their zero drop shoes (the heel is at the same height as the toes, in contrast with pretty much all other running shoes that have the heel higher). They even include a little note that mentions something to the effect of ‘If you’re just trying out your first pair of zero drop shoes, it may take your body a little bit of time to adjust to them.’ I wore the shoes the day I got them for the Brazos Bend 100. After 50 miles, my Achilles tendon was hurting and I had to switch to my normal shoes. But I loved the shoes; they felt great. Tons of room for my toes and no blisters. They run a bit small, and my normal size 12 was a 14 with these shoes. But as we all know, size doesn’t matter. I ran in them around town as much as I could, trying to get my legs used to them. I wore them for my Bandera 100k race and then again a few weeks later for Rocky Raccoon 100. I think I should’ve eased into them a bit more, because my Achilles tendon (especially my right leg) was hurting more than I thought it should. But Lorenzo and I kept going and kept talking, getting ever closer to that finish line.
Amy and the kids were at a couple spots along the course. I greatly enjoyed the high fives and just seeing them. They help lift my spirits so much. One time as I came up to where I knew they’d be, the kids jumped out from behind some bushes to scare me (it’s one of the new things they like to do). I had to act scared and told them how much they scared me as I got back to running.

A few people passed me, which was hard for me mentally. It’s a very rare occasion that other runners will pass me after the first lap. And now a handful or two had passed me. But I had my own race to run and my own adventure to finish. As we came in to various aid stations, Lorenzo would announce to his friends and other volunteers that at the completion of this race, I would have run 512 miles in 3 ½ months (and then list off the races I did). After the somethingth time of him doing that I said, “You’re gonna just tell everyone, aren’t you?” “Well, if you’re not, I will. It’s a great accomplishment, and people should hear about it.”

We finally got to Park Road (aid station; mile 46) and left amidst cheers (because Lorenzo had told them too). I was getting really excited. Still making all the little happy goals I made the week before, we finally made it to the two-direction section that led to the finish. About a mile and a half from the finish, we came up on a walking/slightly hobbling Pompilio Romero. He had also run the 100 the previous week and a 50k a week or two earlier. He was just as beat up as I was. Lorenzo told him to come along, that we were almost finished, and was able to convince Pompilio to join us. We jogged in the rest of the way together. Pompilio had the idea that we should all cross the finish together. I had no problem with that. I also wanted my kids to finish the last few meters with me, but I had no way to communicate that to Amy before I got there. We made it to the happy corner where once you turn, you see the finish and a spot to finally relax. All three of us crossed at 8:07:35. It was an hour slower than I had hoped for, but I was plenty happy to be finished. The ‘crazy’ journey was finally over and my vacation could now begin.