Monday, September 29, 2008

Race Report (six weeks later)

Media coverage of breaking news in recent years has taught me to discount any news that is less than 48 hours old. In other words, I prefer news after the excitement and emotion of the moment has passed and there has been an opportunity to filter out the noise and misinformation. I guess I’m taking the same approach with my race report. In the past, I might have jumped on the keyboard within a day or two of a race and composed a report while the lactic acid was still fresh in my quads, but this year I’ve allowed a month to pass before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys). I’m sure I’ve forgotten certain details as a result of my delay, but I’ve also had an opportunity to reconsider some of my initial post-race thoughts. So, with that somewhat long-winded excuse for my procrastination, here goes.

Getting my Fat and Injured Ass into Gear

2007 was probably the worst year of running ever – period. A nagging calf cramp struck me down in the middle of the summer and wouldn’t let me build back up to any kind of decent mileage until late-Fall. After several weeks of attempting to heal myself, I once again turned to a guy I have come to really appreciate over the years – physical therapist Bill Hamilckeck. He’s never failed me and this was no exception. We agreed to a “ctrl-alt-del” reboot of my overall training program which included previously advised exercises and some new ones. The results were almost instantaneous. Bill’s one of my heroes.

Training over the winter was pretty typical with plenty of trail running and I started to scan the ultra calendars. There were all the usual suspects - Vermont, Masnutten, Burning River – but each was problematic from a scheduling standpoint. At some point in the early spring, I noticed a new kid on the block – the Viaduct Trail Ultramarathon. No entry fee, very little support, pretty flat, dirt/gravel surface and scheduled for the most conflict-free time of the year for me: early August. I had read about “Fat Ass” events over the years and was intrigued by the minimalist approach which basically establishes the date, time, and course while leaving out all the shirts, sponsors, and legal waivers. If the NYC marathon were run by Disney, Fat Ass events would be run by You Tube. It’s kind of a “user generated race”.

With no entry fee, I felt I had very little to lose by e-mailing my name to take one of the 20 open slots for 50- and 100-mile entrants. The race directors responded pretty quickly and I offered any assistance I could provide. Soon after, my friend and co-worker Colin Saville signed up for the 50. The next few months were uneventful and my training schedule began to take shape:

  • Build up to a comfortable 4-hour run at 10-minute pace by early June.
  • Add back-to-back 4-hour and 2- to 3- hour runs in mid-June.
  • Complete 3 back-to-back long runs before July 27th.
  • Taper to race day on August 9th.

On top of the running, I continued Bill’s core and strength training routine and started to research every aspect of nutrition, hydration, and logistics related to 100-milers. I eventually settled on a nutrition/hydration strategy as follows:

  • 40-55 oz. of water per hour (based on two separate sweat rate tests )
  • 100 calories every 20 minutes with a 4:1 carb/protein ratio.

My basic hourly rotation would be:
  • 8 oz of concentrated Accelerade on the hour
  • 100 calories of granola bar or Power Bar on the 20’s
  • 100 calories of various gels on the 40’s

I also positioned assorted pastas, PBJ’s, and chicken broth at the start and 12.5-mile turnaround. I was pretty confident of my plan and continued to enjoy some great training until . . . . . I went cycling twice in one weekend with my wife. July 4th weekend produced some fantastic weather and I really enjoy cycling with Randi on the beautiful roads of west-central NJ (Great Swamp, Pottersville, Far Hills). We cycled 32 miles on July 4th, I ran about 15 miles on July 5th, and we cycled another 27 miles on July 6th. The combination left me with a very unusual pain in my hip. One again, I consulted Bill who alleviated any fear of joint or bone issues and helped me develop a new schedule that would still include 2 back-to-back runs prior to the race. As usual, my padded training schedule allowed me to lose a couple of weeks and still be prepared. I recovered over a week and built back up for my last long training runs which included a dress rehearsal of my hydration and calorie intake. It was time to taper.

The Taper

I don’t need to add to the terabytes already written about the period known as the taper other than to say that I was incredibly touched by the random acts of kindness bestowed upon me by friends and family. I’m a lucky guy.

Race Day

I slept pretty well at the Vacation Inn. Bryon arrived fairly late after a very tough drive from Long Island, but I fell right back asleep and bounced right up when the alarm went off at 4:00 am. I used the hotel coffee maker to heat up water for my oatmeal and press pot. I topped this off with a banana and it was off to Lanesboro (about a 20 minute drive).

I thought I had allowed plenty of time to get ready, but before I knew it, it was 5:55 and we were being summoned to the starting line. I think Colin arrived with Tom O about 5 minute prior to the start. The Starrucca Viaduct is an impressive piece of architecture and a wonderful setting for the national anthem with harmonica accompaniment. Under a cool grey sky, we set off for our first challenge: crossing a rickety old rail bridge that consisted of railroad ties with 8” gaps in between.

The VTU course is 12.5 miles of rail bed converted into a trail with a mixed surface of cinder, gravel, and rock that climbs 800’ on the outbound leg. There are two short dips in the trail. The first occurs around mile 7 when the trail opens up into a nice grassy area. Over a stretch of 100 yards the trail drops about 30’ and climbs back into more woods. The second occurs just before the 10 mile mark and is a much steeper drop of about 100’ into a ravine and back out. Both dips provide a nice change from the other 11 miles of flat trail. There are several pavement and dirt road crossings, but I only saw a car once or twice during the entire race.

The course is very beautiful. Wildflowers line each side of the shaded path which occasionally opens up to reveal picturesque farms. The bees were defending the turf and I received a small sting on my finger in the first outbound leg. On the return leg Tom O indicated he had received a pretty bad sting, so I was hopeful that they would tire or run out of stingers before I passed on the return. At the 12.5-mile turnaround, I refilled my supplies and headed back towards the start. The weather was humid but still comfortable at this point and the bees decided to let me pass on my return leg.

I wrapped up the first loop feeling great and eager to get back on the trail. As planned, I put on fresh socks and lubed my feet before swapping from my trail shoes into my road shoes. I planned to switch shoes and socks on each loop. After a quick refill of supplies, it was time to tackle the rail bridge and another 25 miles. The second loop was warm, but uneventful. In fact, I don’t remember much about this loop other than being grateful it wasn’t warmer, feeling very good, and enjoying the sight of Byron and Colin cruising towards the finish. I believe I had some peanut butter and jelly sandwich at the turn around and topped it off with some chicken broth. I sensed that I was running faster on the downhill leg and my split times confirm that I was about a 45 seconds per mile faster with gravity’s assistance.

I rolled into the starting area a little after 3 and switched back to my trail shoes. My feet looked great – much better than after my previous 50-mile ultras – so I repeated the fresh socks and lube routine, restocked and headed out into uncharted territory feeling very good. I can’t recall what I ate before the 3rd loop, but it didn’t agree with me. Around mile 53, I started to slow down and had trouble running for more than 100 yard at a time. During each of my 4 previous ultras, I had learned that you just need to work through these rough spots. They pass. Within a few minutes, I suddenly became very nauseous, tossed my cookies, and then instantly felt better. By mile 54 or 55, I was feeling well enough to run 7 or 8 minutes and walk for 1. I had broken through one more wall, but suspected it would not be the last one on this day. The rest of the 3rd loop was enjoyable as the warm afternoon gave way to cool evening and then darkness. At some point during this loop, I had a gel with caffeine and also consumed on my two Roctane gels. Around mile 71, I pulled out my headlamp and flashlight but only used them when absolutely necessary. By the time I approached the bridge, it was very dark and I was constantly using both of them. Much to my surprise, I saw the leader - Dave Bursler - leaving for the 4th loop as I approached the starting area. Prior to this moment, the thought of actually racing this event had not crossed my mind, but I was still feeling very good compared to previous 50-milers. I wasn’t going to change my strategy or push the pace to chase after him, but it was encouraging to be so close to the front-runner.

I finished the 3rd loop at 9:00pm after being on the trail for 15 hours. My spirits were great. I followed my same sock/lube routine and several people in the starting area remarked about my feet being in great shape. However, this time, I decided to stay with the trail shoes for the added protection from rocks. I can’t recall what I ate, but it was probably PBJ and some Ensure. I do recall that I was a little confused about what I needed to do before heading out. I almost forgot to refill my water vest and caught the error at the last minute. I also recall Carl, Matt, or David insisting that I take one of theirs wind breakers because mine was 12.5 miles and several hours away at the turnaround. I’m very glad I did. Somewhere around 9:15, I headed out into the darkness to cross that rickety old bridge for the 7th time.

Marathons are sometimes described as two races: the first 20 and the last 6.2. The VTU followed this pattern for me but it was the first 75 and the last 16. Very early in the 4th loop, I became extremely tired and I noticed an ache in my left foot. My initial reaction was to drink and eat a gel with caffeine. I stumbled down the trail waiting for the caffeine to kick in so that I could start running a few minutes at a time. I was convinced this was just another one of those walls that passes with time and I had plenty of time. By mile 78, I was becoming concerned about my inability to walk in anything resembling a straight line. I was stumbling from one side of the trail to the other in a ziz zag up the trail. I was also having trouble keeping my eyes open and the pain in the arch of my left foot was becoming steadily worse. I decided I would go at least as far as the water stop at mile 81 and then reconsider my situation. I couldn’t stay awake and repeatedly awoke to find myself walking through the weeds on the side of the trail. I don’t know how long it took to get there, but upon reaching the water stop, I realized that it was just as far to the start as the turn-around at mile 87, so I might as well go to the turn-around before dropping out. However, I had made up my mind that I would drop out at the turn-around. Something was wrong with the arch of my foot and the only thing I could imagine was a stress fracture of the first metatarsal. On top of that, I became concerned about stumbling off into the woods, falling, and not being found until the next morning. I don’t recall being upset about the prospect of dropping out. I think I was too tired and concerned to care about not finishing at this point. My only coherent thought was “get to the turnaround where there are nice people, food, and sleep”.

Soon after the water table, I was startled by a large black rodent the size of a ground hog running directly toward me on the trail. I gasped and jumped to the side of the trail just in time to see that it was a shadow created by my flashlight hitting a Queen Anne’s Lace that was leaning over the trail. During my research, I read about all the strange things that happen during the night, but I don’t recall reading about large rodent hallucinations. I staggered on for awhile and eventually decided to sit down for a few minutes. I found a semi-smooth patch of dirt among the rocks in the trail and sat looking at the beautiful clear sky. I don’t know how long I sat there, but I awoke at some point and decided to keep moving.

Climbing out of the ravine, I saw Dave coming toward me. I told him I was dropping out at the turn-around, but was very encouraging and offered some great advice: there is plenty of time before the noon cutoff, so take a nap and wait for Steve Wehrle and his crew to catch up. I was really touched by the sincerity of his encouragement. Here’s a guy who has been out here just as long as me, run further and faster, and he still has enough humanity to reach out and help another runner. We said our farewells and headed in opposite directions. Struggle. Struggle. More struggle. The last few mile lasted forever, but soon I faint voices in the distance and knew I was getting close to civilization. I was convinced there was a group of campers beside the trail and peered through the weeds looking for the tents and camp fire. I could hear the people talking, but I couldn’t see them. Soon, I realized I was hearing frogs in a wet area next to the trail. Hallucination #2. I chuckled and moved on.

At 1:38 am, I stumbled into the turn-around and was greeted by a group of volunteers who were having a great time. I explained my plan, was offered some very nice Egyptian cotton bed linens (a canvas tarp), and lay down for a quick nap. Before falling asleep, I looked up and was greeted with hallucination #3 – a series of shooting stars. This time, however, the volunteers confirmed that they had been watching the light show for a couple of hours.

I awoke to the sound of Steve being greeted by the volunteers. He was in good spirits and his two brothers were smiling ear to ear. He immediately came up to me and ordered me to join him and his brother to the first road crossing where I could then bail out and jump in the car with his brother if necessary. He told me that if I made it to the water table, he was going to carry me on his back the remaining 6 miles. With that kind of encouragement, how could I say no? I readied my gear, drank some carbonated Mountain Dew, an Ensure, and some carbonated Coke. Anyone who has every poured coke over ice cream to make a float knows what happened next. (Note to self: never mix Ensure and any carbonated beverage.)

Steve and I walked away from the turnaround around 3:00 am accompanied by one of his brothers while his other brother drove to the first road crossing at 91 miles. We walked, talked, and joked about our crazy endeavor. I enjoyed their company and admired the tight bond between brothers. I felt pretty good for the first mile, but my foot gradually became worse. By the time we reached the road crossing, it was really painful and, when I took off my shoe, I saw a large red swollen are right above the arch. We tried taping it, but that made it hurt even worse, so it quickly became apparent that 3 more hours of stumbling down a rock trail with an injured foot would (a) invite serious injury, (b) be unfair to my family and our plans for the rest of the summer, and (c) delay any rendezvous with my sleeping bag. I’m incredibly grateful to the Wehrle brothers for helping me through those last miles and giving me a ride back to the starting line. I hope our paths cross again someday so I can return the favor.

Six Weeks Later

I would test my recovery 2 weeks after the race when I backpacked on the Appalachian Trail with my son. My foot bothered me a little but got better as we hiked along the first day. Unfortunately, my right knee got worse each day and I had to take ibuprofen to keep up with my son. He was really cruising and we reached our 2nd night campsite on the first night which prompted us to increase our 4-day trip from 20 miles to 33. On the last morning of our trip, Karl Meltzer ran through camp on his attempt to break the 47-day record for traversing the entire 2,174 mile Appalachian trail. Impressive.

Since then, I’ve gradually increased my runs and I just ran my first 90-minute run a few days ago, so my 11-month journey has come full cycle. It’s time to start looking at the race calendar again.

The Lessons

Unlike previous races, I knew that almost everything had to go right in order to finish the race. There’s a very slim margin for error in this type of event and, just like I had read, it’s a big jump from 50 to 100. Therefore, I’m not overly disappointed or surprised that I didn’t finish. Conversely, I’m excited about the opportunity to take what I learned and give it another try. So what did I learn?

  • A pacer is really important after dark. I’ve never had any support at any of my races and taken some pride in being self –sufficient, but I would have really appreciated a pacer on the last loop. I’m not sure I would have finished with a pacer, but it would have been much safer and there’s a possibility they would have detected some problem in my hydration, calories or electrolytes and helped me recover.
  • You never know what will cause an issue. Going into VTU, I had two primary concerns. During some of my earlier ultras, my vision became very blurred during the latter stages of the race. I’m not talking about being dizzy. It was something related to my eyes and my ophthalmologist did not have a diagnosis. It was a minor problem on the 50’s, but I was really concerned about blurry vision at night on the 100. It never materialized. I was also concerned about blisters, so I changed shoes, socks, and lubed my feet frequently. The blisters never materialized, but I may have over-tightened my left shoe at some point and this may have been the cause of my swollen aching foot.
  • The ultra community is a special group of people. The brief and not-so-brief interactions that occurred throughout the weekend were very rewarding and increase my desire to enter more races, pace other runners, and help organize fat ass events in my local area.