Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Arkansas Traveler Race Report

2010 Arkansas Traveler 100

It seems to get more difficult to drag these race reports out of me after these 100-milers and other boondoggles I get myself into.  I know it always gives me a great vehicle for personal reflection on all aspects of the event, my preparation, my effort, and the ultimate end result.

When I started the Arkansas Traveler 100 trail race a few weeks ago I was more prepared for this race than any other I have done to-date.  I had the perspective of glorious failures of the past as well as the redemptive vibe of my successes.  From a training and mileage stand-point I have never been in better shape in my life.  Prior to the taper, I logged 450 miles in 4 weeks leading up to the event.  This included a great 56-mile overnight run at Erwin Park.  I have also been very fortunate this past year to remain almost completely injury-free.  If I take more than a day off everything seems to start to get a little stiff.  As long as I am getting in my 16-24 miles a day everything stays very loose and supple.    I completely attribute this to adopting a more natural running form with a proper fore-foot strike.  I will not get on my soap box here, but if you ever want to pull up a chair and talk feet, form, etc for about 6 hours give me a shout!

All of the heat training I did leading up to my adventure at the Badwater 135 this past July in Death Valley also seems to be paying dividends.  In the weeks leading up to last week’s race the area temperatures here in Dallas gave way to some very refreshing Fall weather.  It was invigorating.  My tempo runs during the week were getting done all in sub 8:00 minute times with a few under 7:00.  The beautiful part was how effortless it was.  I could complete these very brisk runs with a fluid running form and never break through my aerobic threshold.  There is no short cut to this type of fitness.  Consistency and persistency are the only way.  All those runs in 110 degree heat and runs under the cover of darkness while the rest of the world slept were the difference makers.

One of my favorite parts of going to one of these out of town races is loading up with some great running friends and road tripping.  The Trail Freaks were reunited once again for this one.  While we did not get to do much training together leading up to this event, it did not take long for us to be cracking on each other and enjoying ourselves as we headed for the Ouachita National Forest on a perfect fall day.

This is the first Ultra we have done that we decided to tent camp near the starting location.  Hotels were not very convenient to this location.  The weather was perfect and this may be contributing to my feeling right now that I will NEVER stay in a hotel again when going to the mountains or anywhere else to run 100 miles in the woods.  It just seems sacrilegious to buffer yourself from the very elements you seek to embrace while running free through the forest.    Perhaps I would feel different if it rained all weekend, but I hope not!  We shall see.

Check-in, weigh-in, and a pretty good pasta dinner provided by the local fire department and I was ready to go chill under the canopy of shimmering leaves in the late afternoon sun for a little cat nap.  Normally, much of this time would have been spent driving to and from the hotel, race headquarters, last minute food, etc.  It was very calming to be able to stretch out and just breathe in and out as the last part of the day quietly slipped away.

Darkness was due to hit about 7:30.  Another benefit to not being in a hotel is that there is no TV or other creature comforts to distract you.  Just the rapidly cooling, crisp evening air and a symphony of crickets and other chirping critters that lulled me to sleep.  I have no doubt that sleeping in the great outdoors allowed me to get the best pre-race night’s sleep I have ever gotten.  The correctly chosen sleeping bag and a proper air mattress did not hurt either.  4:30 am comes quickly and we begin to stir about to be ready for our 6:00 start time.

Race headquarters is at Camp Ouachita.  There is a very nice lodge there that offered one last respite of comfort and warmth before a very long day and night on the very rocky trails.  Race numbers are issued.  Old friends say hello.  Most just mill about quietly with their own thoughts and expectations for what this epic day will offer them. 

Race strategy:  I did quite a bit of research on this trail, course profile, past year’s results, etc.  The RD had posted some great data to dissect.  They had split times for every runner through each of the 23 aid stations from last year’s event.  I carefully matched up the paces runners were posting to the elevation of the course.  I very conservatively mapped out my strategy for running a race that would ensure I would finish no matter what if anything unforeseen happened, but would allow me to really go for it and have a grand day if the stars aligned. 

The starting gun went off in the darkness and around 100 sturdy souls began to move forward into the darkness.  A brief jaunt down a hill on a blacktop round and my feet are finally in the dirt.  Overall, there are aid stations roughly every 3-5 miles along the course.  I have a copy of my pace chart on the back of my race number.  I plotted a very conservative start for the first few sections.  In the early going I am hitting all my marks right on time and feel very relaxed and content to finally be running on race day.

At mile 8 we hit the Ouachita Trail section.  This is the most technical, rocky, single-track on the entire course.  I am thankful for three things.  1.  Daylight has broken and I can run this section without the use of a headlamp.  2.  We are running this section with fresh legs.  The technical nature of this section would be much more difficult on legs with 80+ miles on them.  3.  We will not run this section on the way back on said tired legs!  Do not get me wrong.  I love single-track and this trail has all the great elements.  I am feeling pretty warm on this section with the elevation changes that are kicking in and I allow myself to cut loose a little bit.  I cruise into the first major aid station at mile 17 exactly 30 seconds ahead of my chart.

Now with 23 aid stations over the length of the course you can loose waaaaaay too much time if you do not have a well thought out plan for what you want to accomplish as you come into each aid station.  Know what you need/want.  Get it and take it down the trail with you as you head out and keep moving!  This is one part of my strategy that I executed flawlessly all day and night.  Some aid stations I was in and out in less than 45 seconds.  Basically, how fast can a volunteer top off my two hand-held water bottles?  Some were faster than others.  All were fabulous!  Yes, the rugged trail runner with the beard that gets mistaken for Sasquatch or a pirate used the word fabulous!  These volunteers give up their entire weekend to be there for the runners.  Most are experienced runners themselves.  Others were not, but just as enthusiastic with their support and assistance. 

The next major section to the Lake Winona aid station would be at almost 32 miles into the out and back course.  Things were relatively uneventful during this section as I continued to settle in and was hitting all of my time splits and getting in and out of the aid stations very quickly.  There is usually a point in a 100-mile race where the early adrenaline of the day is gone, the pack has spread out and at times you are left running solo.  This is usually also the point where you get “in the zone”.  This is where you hit your rhythm and your body responds to the ebb and flow of the demands of the course and you feel like you could run literally FOREVER.  This is a beautiful feeling.  It was just me and the trail and the mountain.  At about mile 25 I asked someone how many people had already come through the aid station.  The guy checked his clip board and looked up and told me:  “9”.  I was in 10th place and feeling great!  Still working my conservative plan and running well within myself.  I guess I had not noticed that I had clipped by quite a few people during the last sections.  The race was on!

In the 8 miles to the next major aid station me and 1 other runner trade positions.  There is a long way to go, but I did come into the next aid station in 9th place now.  Slowly (well hopefully not too slowly), but surely maybe I could continue to pick a runner off here and there.  Sometimes the only sign I see on the course that someone is moving forward ahead of me is the tell-tale dribble trail of urine of a male runner who has mastered the act of nictration while on the run.  If you have never seen this it looks like a kid was walking down the trail randomly spraying a water gun.  This technique saved me at least 20-30 minutes over the course of the day.

If you have read any of my other blog posts you have heard me say how in a 100-mile race your fortunes can change many times over.  So far on this day everything has been pointing up for me.  All good things must come to an end.  The culprit is my usual nemesis:  My stomach.  I immediately begin upping my consumption of ginger ale and I add a steady diet of a few Tums tabs at each aid station.  I lose time and a few positions over the next 10 miles.  My pace is slowed by my surly stomach, a very rocky trail, and the first ascent of Smith Mountain. 

While my stomach is on the way to recovery my spirit is still soaring.  I am on the highest part of the course, on a beautiful trail running solo, and the leaves appear to be changing color right before my eyes.  As I run along the ridgeline of the mountain the sapphire blue sky of the late afternoon opens up above me.  Out of nowhere, a very large hawk begins cruising the air currents atop the ridge a mere 20 feet above my head.  He has his nose pointed into the wind and is moving along the treetops at a pace that seems to be leading me down the trail.  Another great omen on a great day.  I descend Smith Mountain into the Powerline aid station with increased intestinal fortitude and a renewed enthusiasm.  The ebb has flowed and my fortunes are looking up again. 

The time of day is about 4:00 pm now.  I have been running almost 10 hours and I have covered almost 50 miles.  I use this opportunity to change into my compression tights.  The body feels like it could use a bit of a lift.  2XU full compression does not disappoint.  I leave Powerline ready to take on the night only slightly behind schedule although I have given back some positions on the trail.  This next section has much more descent than I had calculated and it is the smoothest part of the entire course.  I turn the dogs loose and start turning some sub-9:00 minute miles over the 8 miles to the turnaround point.  I make up most of the time I lost and come into the turnaround less than 10 minutes off pace.  Suddenly I could care less about what place I am in.  Nighttime is approaching quickly and I feel pretty solid right now.

Less than a mile on the way back to Powerline I see Melissa approaching the turnaround.  She looks great and is motoring.  We give shouts of encouragement to each other and I have no doubt I will be seeing her in my rearview very soon.  Melissa is in 2nd place amongst females!  She is only 30 minutes behind the women’s leader, but Melissa is moving waaaaay faster than she is.  Sure enough in a few minutes she motors by in a completely different gear than me.  “On, on!” I encourage her.  I have no doubt she will catch the leader it is just a matter of when and can she keep herself together.  Remember that part about fortunes changing. 

There is a little mishap at Powerline on my way back.  My drop bag inadvertently got dumped and my wind shirt is now missing along with all of my carefully selected caffeine products (remember this later).  The volunteers are well-meaning, but my problem remains.  It is dark now and the winds are very brisk.  Gusts over 25 mph.  I expect they will be higher as I begin to ascend Smith Mountain for the second time and cross the exposed ridgeline.  I worry about losing too much body heat during this section for a few reasons.  It is dark and my pace will be slower.  My legs now have over 65 miles on them and I will have to tread very carefully over one of the rockiest sections of the course.  The second major obstacle of the day and my mind is whirring with possible solutions.  I commandeer a long-sleeve cotton t-shirt from a by-stander.  Cotton is not my first choice but it will have to do.  To combat the wind I fashion a trash bag into a wind shirt.  Many of you have probably utilized this technique while waiting for a road race to start so you can dump it at the start and not worry about retrieving it later.  Odds are I will get pretty intimate with it for most of the next 35 miles.

Anyway, it took we much longer to type this than the actually time I spent in the aid station trying to solve these problems.  Off I go to Smith Mountain I go again where the winds whipping at 30-35 mph.  I will be really glad to be done with this section.

During the next section to mile 83 once I am off the mountain I am able to get running again pretty good and start generating some significant body heat.  Another good omen:  Bats diving in and out of my headlamp beam picking off the bugs I was attracting.  I hope the bugs were attracted to the light and not my lovely forest scent of 18 hours on the trail.  I am sure I smelled like one of those green tree air fresheners that hang from your rearview mirror. 

I always have to remind myself to pause and drink in certain moments along the way during an epic event like this.  Especially at night.  You are physically and mentally exhausted and you have to concentrate on every footfall.  You can miss so much when you get tunnel vision like that.  I stop atop the ridge along a clearing and look up to the heavens.  The Milky Way sprawls from horizon to horizon as far as I can see.  The 2 minutes I stand there I see at least 4 shooting starts.  I breathe deep, smile, and raise my arms to the blanket of stars above.  This is what really living is all about!   I feel so incredibly fully alive!  Back to business….

I did lose some significant time during this section for several reasons.  The stomach did go a little bit sideways, but not too bad.  2 big problems here.  Lack of caffeine (see debacle at Powerline) is now causing major fatigue to set in.  Most people would say that major fatigue is to be expected at this point.  This is one problem I did not want to have yet again.  The first sign of this type of major fatigue is a very serious medical condition called “fucky” vision.  Basically this means that your vision completely fades to black as you literally fall asleep while running.   I am very conscious of this happening and there is nothing I can do to stop it.  Several times I am jarred back awake as I go crashing off the trail into the underbrush.  Luckily there are no drop-offs and somehow I do not get tripped up on any rocks.  I have 2 miles until I am into the next aid station and I have to figure out how to keep myself moving. 

So here is what I came up with.  I start talking out loud to myself.  Very loud.  I am actually shouting into the darkness of the surrounding woods.  This accomplishes two things.  I have to engage my brain to speak out loud and at the same time I have to engage my brain to listen to what I am saying out loud.  Follow?  What was I saying?  I have no idea.  It probably sounded like the authentic frontier gibberish of Gabby Johnson form Blazing Saddles.  After a while I settle on repeating my favorite Thoreau quote that seems aptly appropriate in this situation: “The woods are lovely dark and deep.  But I have promises to keep, And I have miles to go before I sleep! And miles to go before I sleep!”  There was no way I was going to break any promises to myself on this night.  The volunteers got a kick out of me marching into the aid station shouting Thoreau to the heavens.  They said they could hear me before they could see me.

Now another side effect of “fucky” vision is the perception that your headlamp does not work worth a shit!  Everything appears to be dimming on you.  Unfortunately for me my headlamp was actually not working worth a shit.  About a mile or so from the last aid station and my headlamp dies completely.  I am totally in the dark on a very rocky trail with 2 miles to the next stop.  I trudge forward at a snail’s pace.  It takes me almost an entire hour to cover the distance and the worst part was the cold creeping in due to my trudging along in the blackness. 

I hit another major aid station and I have about 14 miles to go.  I fashion a contractor-grade trash bag into a wind shirt again.  Actually this time it is more like an ankle-length dress which is fine by me.  At this point I am moving very slow, but I have no doubt I will finish.  Probably not under 24 hours either.  That will have to come another day (Maybe October 30th?).  I begin to see the first signs of impending daylight.  My spirits lift and at this point I am just going to enjoy the gift of each step I get to take on the trail before the conclusion of this race. 

I have not seen anyone else in a very long time.  Who should be happening along as I approached mile 97, fellow Trail Freak Suzi.  She is walking aggressively.  Faster than I am at this point.  I am more or less ambling like a casual stroll in the park on a Sunday afternoon.  Knowing Suzi, she wants to F-ing get this done.  She is tough and consistent.  I am not surprised to see her.  Her pace gives me a lift and off we go to cross the finish line together.  I feel good enough to run pretty fast now, but Suzi is battling some stomach issues.  She tells me to go on without her.  “No way man!  We are finishing this mo-fo together!”  We navigate the last few turns and run down the gentle slope to the finish line at Camp Ouachita at 8:12 am on Sunday morning 26 hours and 12 minutes after we left the same place. 

It is a pretty decent time considering all the walking that occurred during the last 14 miles, the lack of caffeine, the dead headlamp, and 2 bad bouts with nausea.  The longer you run the narrower the margin for error.  A monster breakfast in the cozy lodge awaits!  I do a quick check of the standings to see how everyone came in.  Melissa won!  She was the first female with a time of 23 hours and 34 minutes beating the next female by a very slim margin of 3 minutes.  I wonder if she figured out the peeing trick?

We go back to the campsite to find a warm shower and crash for a few hours until the awards ceremony.  Showering after a 100-miler is always a love-hate situation.  The prospect of a warm shower and comfortable clothes is a delicious thought.  I’ll even say fabulous again.  The hate and even dread comes in the form of warm soapy water providing you with not so gentle reminders about where you did not re-apply body glide quite often enough.  Monkey butt.  Need I say more.  Ultrarunning peeps know of what I speak.  When the water hit my nether regions I called out in a death scream of total agony.  Much more pain at that moment than anything I felt over 100 miles on a rugged trail.  People in the parking lot were laughing at me.  I could care less. 

The first 2 hours of sleep since Friday and then we were off to the awards ceremony.  People are still finishing as we get back to the lodge.  I devour another huge serving of the pancake breakfast.  So what is the award one receives for completing a 100-mile race over rugged terrain.  A belt buckle.  Yep, that is right a belt buckle.  No it is not “fabulous”.  It is badass.  It should be described the way Samuel L. Jackson described his wallet to the stick-up guy in the diner in Pulp Fiction:  “It is the one that says bad-ass m-f’er on it”.  The buckle does not actually say that, but it does.

I obviously take the next day off and continue to eat massive quantities of food a grab sleep every chance I can.  I awake on Tuesday 48 hours after finishing the race and I feel like running.  4 miles.  Easy.  The legs feel pretty good.  There is some discomfort, but my body responds and heals with movement.  The movements today are gentle and easy.  Taking more time off would be ideal, but I get to do this all over again just 17 days from today.  I am very pleased with my recovery and the way my body responded.  In the next race I will again attempt to solve the stomach problem (Tums early and often) and proactive doses of caffeine  as well.  And there will be fresh batteries in every drop bag!

Overall I am very satisfied with my effort and my ability to overcome the adversities of the day.  As late as mile 60 I was pinging around near 10th place.  Besides, I got a really bad-ass belt buckle out of the deal!