Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ultra Running and Rock Climbing

This morning when I got into work I went through my normal routine; check work email, check personal email, look for video updates from the youtube channels I subscribe to, etc. While doing so I saw that Salomon Running posted a new video of the team running a race in South Africa. It occurred to me at that moment how closely ultra running and climbing are physically and mentally.

I spent years as a rock climbing building my endurance for longer sport and trad routes. I would spend as much time on the rock as possible to develop that long-term muscle endurance that would allow me to sustain the physical strength to accomplish my goal of ascending whatever route I was on, without falling. When I transitioned to bouldering my focus changed to power endurance, being able to push very hard for a shorter period of time, yet maintaining the endurance to repeat my effort in case I failed to accomplish my goal.

Running is no different. I've now spent a few years building my endurance so that I can run long and strong. It has required me to train differently than other people might for a 5k or even a half marathon. I've spent hours on trails in the woods rolling over hills and mountains building my cardiovascular and leg strength, just to the point that I feel I can run much further without red-lining. Now that I've built up that strength my recent focus has been to build my power in climbing longer and steeper hills. I am trying to keep my weekly vertical gain to anywhere above 8000 feet. I'm hoping that the long term payoff is reduced racing and adventure time in more difficult races and trails, specifically the Wasatch 100 and adventure runs in Zion, the Grand Canyon, and Wind Rivers range.

Climbers used to be quite unique in their attitude towards traveling the world looking for new and exciting places to climb. They were and are often tagged as 'hippies' or 'transients' as they travel around in VW vans or trucks with shells and beds built up in the back. They travel the country and world in search of the newest areas, beautiful back country, and hardest routes or problems. In reality, many of those climbers are professionals who manage a challenging weekly work schedule and family life. It is simply their weekend outings that tag them as something different.
Many climbers also seem to be in search of that zen state; a near meditative oneness with their surroundings, fully focused on the combination of the physical moment and nature, all at once. It's a unique feeling that can't be found in many, if not most, other activities.

Ultra running seems to be making a similar trend as climbing. I'm reading more and more about runners heading out on pilgrimage to foreign lands in search of new adventures. Whether going to the Alps of Switzerland, Table Mountain in South Africa, or the Grand Canyon of Arizona, runners are leaving jobs and family behind - if even for a very short time - to find a new course, mountain, or back country bushwack that will stimulate their sense of adventure. And like climbers many are driving out to their new destination in vans and trucks with beds built up in the back. It is not uncommon to see this setup at the start of races or the trailheads of some of the nations more common back country hikes.
I actually find that I am even more closely linked with nature when I'm running than I was when climbing. Rarely these days do I take my iPod with me when I'm on the trails. Instead, I like to connect with the ground, the trees, and mountains that surround me. This feeling of zen is most prevalent when I'm running technical downhill trails since they require my complete focus. The moment I lose that focus I often catch a toe and find myself face-down in the dirt. It is during those moments when I'm absolutely in LOVE with what I'm doing because nothing else exists. I'm not bogged down by the stressed of work, money, family, or other pressures of 'normal life' - it's just me and the trail.

Ultimately, I run long distances out in the middle of nowhere because it is fun. But finding these links between two activities I love so much is eye-opening and cool. It's interesting to me to know that there is something innate that drives me to be passionate about two activities that, at face value, seem so drastically different. It's pretty cool, I think.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Wasatch 100 Pacing

I had the wonderful opportunity to once again be involved as a pacer at the Wasatch 100 Mile Endurance Race. When I didn't get selected in the lottery this year I as sorely disappointed, but once I recovered I decided I'd make the best of it by pacing and helping someone else get to the finish. When my friend Scott Wesemann got selected I knew he'd need some help as this would be his first 100 miler, so we talked and agreed that I would pace him for nearly the entire last half of the race - 47 miles from Lamb's Canyon to the finish in Midway.

For those unfamiliar with the Wasatch 100 it is one of the first 100 mile ultra-marathons. With it's roots dating back to 1980, this year would be the 32nd running of the event. The race runs on mostly single-track trail from Fruit Heights to Midway, UT in the high elevations of the Wasatch mountains. There is over 26,000 ft of elevation gain and the average elevation of over 8,000 ft. The trail is often technical and is rarely flat. Only experienced ultra-runners are encouraged to participate.

Scott has been dedicated to training specifically for this event over the last 7 months, but even then I think he felt he was a little under prepared. However, he had expressed confidence that if he could get the 53 miles to Lamb's Canyon, I would be able to get him to the finish. I had no doubt that was true.

When he did get to Lamb's he was already more than an hour behind schedule (he had a goal time of 30 hours) due to a solid bonk at mile 18. However, he had been helped with a pace the last 14 miles since Big Mountain aid station and was now feeling good and moving well. We got him through the aid station very quick and he and I were heading up Lamb's Canyon road in the fading light. There was a gorgeous gibbous moon (nearly full) and we were looking forward to a beautiful night in the mountains.

1.6 miles up the road we turned onto single track trail that would climb nearly 2,000 feet in 2.5 miles to a saddle and then drop into Millcreek Canyon. The climb for Scott was steady and strong and we passed half dozen other runners and their pacers.We were laughing and joking the whole way as we dropped the mile of steep trail down into the upper Millcreek paved road that would take us three miles back up to the Upper Big Water aid station. Even on this section of steep paved road Scott was moving strong and we passed several other runners. He came into the aid station feeling great and was looking forward to seeing his crew prior to us heading up the Big Water trail towards Desolation aid station.

We didn't stay long at the aid stop and started moving quickly up the trail. He again passed several runners and we cruised up to Dog Lake, sharing stories and making future adventure plans. We did get passed by a few people who took longer at the aid station while we had to make a few adjustment stops, but we weren't concerned; we weren't out there to beat others, just to get Scott to the finish line. While we moved quickly up to Dog Lake, the drop down to the Desolation trail put extra pressure on Scott's aching toes (both his big toenails were crammed and wrecked) and he had to slow down due to painful feet. The steep climb back up to Desolation Lake really took a lot out of him too. However, when we got to the aid station we were still having a lot of fun joking with the volunteers. We didn't stay long as there were several very tired and beat up runners and it was just depressing.

Scott making me feed him a PB&J at Desolation Lake

Out of Desolation you have to climb more than 500 feet up to the Wasatch Crest trail, then run 4 miles of some of the most stunning single-track this state has to offer. It runs nearly right across the ridge and you can see into both Park City and Big Cottonwood Canyon. The moon was still high, the temps were cool, and all of a sudden Scott found a gear he didn't even know he had. Since the trail casually rolled up and over small hills he didn't have to worry much about his toes and could keep a very steady running pace. It was incredible to watch as he moved over terrain that everyone else had to slowly hike. He flew into Scott Hill aid station, mile 70, looking like he had barely gone 25 miles. However, in reality he was tired and it was getting pretty cold. He asked to sit for a few minutes and eat some chicken broth (I had strict rules about sitting down and getting near fires). In the cold air his muscles tightened up and he had a hard time getting going again. Soon after the trail turns to dirt road, then pavement, both of which are quite steep as you loose 1500 vertical feet in 5 miles before reaching Brighton Ski Resort, the aid station at mile 75 and a place often referred to as "The Morgue". Scott had to walk the entire 5 miles and was pretty wrecked as we stepped into the warm air of the smaller lodge.

Above Desolation Lake along the Wasatch Crest trail

The stop at Brighton was long, but necessary. There were many runners who were looking like they weren't going to make it, one of which was elite runner Phil Lowry who had gotten very sick 3.5 hours earlier and had since been sleeping on the floor in the back room ever since. He still had time to finish if he could get up and start moving again, but that would require him being able to keep some food and drink down first. I ate awesome food and talked with several friends who were either running or pacing and just happened to be there at the same time while Scott recovered by getting a leg massage from his crew chief Greg. Scott ate really well and that helped his energy.

Even though the stop was 40 minutes we still got him out of there and up the trail towards Catherine Pass and a merge onto the Great Western Trail. It was a very slow climb up the 1,000 ft ascent to the pass. Scott was not in top form at this point and can you blame him, he was 75 miles into one of the toughest 100 milers on the planet. He had never traveled more than 50 miles by foot ever before and that was nearly a year ago on a very flat course. Half way up the pass here came Phil Lowry, now recovered and moving strong. We got to the top at the same time as several other runners and started down the very steep and technical descent down to Ant Knolls aid station. Scott's toes were now unbearable and his pace slowed to less than 2 miles an hour while moving down hill. We came into Ant Knolls and he looked really wrecked. 

It was vital that I got him out of there as quickly as possible and back on the trail. I wouldn't allow him to stand by the fire or sit near the heater. He ate some hash browns and sausage, drank some Coke and Gu Brew and we were off onto the trail again. The next climb is the steepest of the entire race, but it is also very short. Once on top of the hill we headed south towards Pole Line Pass in the morning glow of the beautiful sunrise. Because it was slightly uphill or flat Scott was able to run again and we soon started making better time.

When we reached Pole Line Pass aid station the sun was now up and we were warm once again. I allowed Scott to sit in a chair by the fire while I fed him eggs and sausage. When I turned my back to throw something away and then looked at him again he had fallen asleep. He had now traveled 84 miles and had been on his feet for 26 hours. While I fully understood why he was sleeping I couldn't allow it to continue. With a not-so-gentle "wake up princess" I got him to his feet and made him start moving again. 

The next section to Rock Springs is a very pretty trail as it winds up the west side of a small mountain. Below are beautiful lakes and above is always looming the amazing Mt Timpanogos to the west. The trail is mostly a gradual incline with only a few very steep climbs that never last more than 30 yards. Incredibly, 85+ miles into his run Scott was still able to slowly run the lower grade climbs while everyone else walked. We pushed ahead and came around to the south and into Rock Springs. It would be a quick stop as I knew it was time to push him to the end, now only 13 miles away.

Less than a half mile beyond Rock Springs are two sections of trail called "The Dive" and "The Plunge". They are apply named as they are frighteningly steep, loose, and covered in a fine layer of dirt. This dirt works into your shoes and quickly irritates the skin on your feet and toes and it gets ground in over the next several miles. With Scott's already wrecked big toes you can only imagine how slow this section went. It caused him more pain then I've ever seen him go through. In all the adventures I've done with him I had never seen him like this. He had lost his sense of humor and while he would continue to talk to me he wasn't jovial and just wanted it to be over. Having run 2 races of this distance before I knew how he felt and respected his quiet attitude. It was now just about getting to the finish line. 

Feet from moving into The Dive

Once through both of those sections we still had 4 miles of meandering trail through the Aspens before we would get to Pot Bottom, the final aid station before pushing to the finish. Most people who haven't run Wasatch hate this section as it seems to go the opposite way it should, west and uphill. Every turn is a disappointment as you expect it to start going downhill towards the eventual aid station. Since I had run this section last year I knew what was coming and had prepared Scott for it. Unlike most others we actually enjoyed this section and Scott specifically thought it was very pretty and runnable. We came into Pot Bottom with high hopes of now getting to the finish line and doing so in good time. Scott flew through the aid station and started up the trail before I was even done eating my sandwich.

The trail to the finish from Pot Bottom is pretty easy - a 500 ft climb up a dirt road and then a 2500 ft drop down through ATV trails and single-track to a paved road that leads to the finish line. While Scott had to walk much of the downhill he picked it back up into a running pace once we hit the pavement. Soon after we met his wife and kids. His three daughters dropped in next to him and ran with him to the finish line where I had run ahead to take pictures and video. It was an emotional finish and beautiful to watch. He had traveled 100 miles on some of the most difficult trails in the US. He had been on his feet for 32 hours and 45 minutes and he had come in triumphant. It was an honor for me to run with him, to be a part of this wonderful experience, and I'm very happy for Scott and what he was able to accomplish.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Desire to Run Faster

For any of us, regardless of our passion or profession, I believe it is in our nature to try and better ourselves. With what effort we can we try and throw out those negatives that might hold us back from bettering our best; growing older, lack of time, no resources, the list goes on. And even when we are progressing, I think (and hope for that matter) that most of us - at least those of us who actually care about the things we do - still want to make that big jump up to another significant level instead of having to take baby steps.

I'm trying not to be overly specific here since this way of thinking applies not just to running (which is what I'm obviously going to be talking about), but may also applies to a persons career, family life, and other recreational endeavors. As for me though, this is of course about running.

Like any competitive person I want to get better at running because it is what I love and I want to compete at my absolute best level. However, as an ultra-runner I believe it is considerably more difficult than the average road marathoner for a few reasons:
  • While many people experience a mental and/or physical low during a marathon, ultra-runners often experience several. Managing through multiple lows can have a major impact on ones overall race time.
  • Time at one or two aid stations during a road half or full marathon might impact your overall time by up to a couple of minutes. In an ultra the same delays at the up-to a dozen or more aid stations can impact your overall time by an hour or more.
  • While many people in marathons have to stop for a bio-break, ultra runners have to do it many times (hopefully, if not they are in trouble). Again, a big impact on overall time.
There are more, but I'll just leave those as a simple example. It boils down to this, if I want to make a significant jump in my ultra-running ability, I have to be prepared to make a few major changes. Until 2011 my previous best 50 mile time was just over 9 hours. I set a goal going into the Antelope Island 50 Miler of 8 hours, a full hour faster than my previous best. That 9 hour 50 was run during the first half of the Pony Express 100 miler last fall, on a very flat course. Antelope Island 50 has three times as much vert and much of it was run on technical single-track instead of wide open dirt road. I knew that to accomplish my goal I'd have to run faster and spend less time at aid stations. Sticking to my race strategy I was able to run a 8:02, accomplishing my goal. I think it's pretty impressive considering I had a real low-point for about 15 miles during the race and almost dropped.

I've been reading reports of elite runners going sub-20 hours on tough courses and much faster on the flatter ones. While I know that's well out of my league right now I do have the desire to at least go sub-20 hours on a flat, faster course. It's my goal to go under 20 hours this year at Pony Express 100. To do that I will have to knock off more than 2.5 hours from last year's time. And my only basis of comparison in a 100 miler since was at Laramie where I ran 23:21. While it was 40 min slower than my first 100 miler, the course was significantly harder, was run at elevation, and I was really not feeling it that day. So to add only 40 minutes onto a course that had 10,000 ft more vert and was run on a slightly technical course (a few of the miles on the loop were technical) is a huge jump in performance, at least that is how I'm viewing it.

So how do I go sub-20 this year at Pony Express? Well, the reasons are numerous:
  • First and foremost, I can't bonk at mile 18 and then continue to flail until mile 31. I was a wreck at mile 20, sitting on the back of the car bumper with ice on my legs. I lost 40 minutes over the several times I spent just sitting there icing my legs.
  • Avoid any kind of allergic reaction. Ha. If you need to know what I'm talking about, read last year's race report.
  • Shorten my longer aid stops. In a 100 miler I expect to have 2 - 3 longer stops (upwards of 10 min). However, last year I had at least two stops that were in the 20 min range. My goal this year will be to keep all stops under 5 min. It might be hard to do, but it's a goal.
  • Run more consistently the last 40 miles. I just need to run more and walk less, it's simple math.
  • Finally, fuel better. I have a much better understanding of fueling this year and plan to take full advantage of it. If I can keep my energy up then I can run faster, longer. 
So that's the plan. Will it result in a less than 20 hour finish? We'll see. I have one last long run while I pace my friend Scott for the last 47 miles miles of the Wasatch 100, then run a couple of additional good weeks before a nice taper. If all goes well I'll be more physically ready for this year's race than anything I've ever done before. Time will tell.