I’ve only been skiing a half-dozen times in my life, and I haven’t been skydiving (yet), but I still think this video shows a great example of living with a capital “L”.
This weekend’s Holiday Lake 50K++ ultramarathon promises to be a wet, snowy, muddy mess. The trail is currently covered by about 5″ of snow, with another several inches forecast. Later in the week, the temperature is expected to rise a bit, so the snow will turn to slush and then to mud. Figure in around 300 runners covering the same single-track trail for 16+ miles, and then doubling back and covering the same ground again, and one can only imagine what a slop-fest it will be. I wouldn’t be running it otherwise.
One day, I hope to approach the first ultra of the year in great shape, trained, rested, and ready to rumble. Saturday will not be that day. Work, weather, and a general malaise have hampered my training, and I had nearly made peace with the thought of taking a pass on Holiday Lake.
And then came the snow, and I realized that this will be no ordinary ultra. Just as last spring’s Promise Land 50K will be remembered for its heat and humidity, this year’s Holiday Lake promises to be remembered for its snow, mud and muck. How could I pass up the experience?
I harbor no illusions about running a PR. Given the conditions, few if any will be able to do that. My main goal – really my only goal – is to beat the 8 hour time limit. I believe that’s doable, but given fitness level and trail conditions, it’s no sure thing.
If nothing else, the experience should give me something to write about.
P.S. For anyone who thinks that 8 hours for a trail ultra through the snow and mud sounds easy, come join me on the starting line at 6:30 a.m. next Saturday. You might want to bring an extra pair of dry socks.
Jennifer emailed me at work today with a link to a CNN.com article on the Badwater Ultramarathon. 135 miles through Death Valley, with temperatures of 130 degrees and pavement so hot that runners have to stay on the painted lines in order to keep their shoes from melting. The subject line of her email was “Don’t even think about it.”
I had, of course. Not so much about running it – much like Wayne and Garth when they met Alice Cooper in “Wayne’s World”, I’m not worthy to even say the “Badwater” name out loud with only a few 50K’s under my belt.
There are quite a few that I shouldn’t mention. For example, the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run, a jaunt across the Rockies featuring 33,000 feet of climb with an average elevation of 11,000 feet. Ditto the Leadville Trail 100, also in the Rockies. And the Western States Endurance Run in the Sierra Nevadas. And the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run, right here in Virginia.
And then there’s the Barkley 100 Mile Run in Tennessee. More than half of all Barkley entrants quit before the 21st mile. In its 22 year history, only 8 runners out of around 700 have finished this 100 mile race within the 60 hour cutoff. 60 hours! By way of comparison, this year’s Badwater winner finished that 135 mile race in under 24 hours.
What makes Barkley so tough? Read this Washington Post article. It gives a great overview of Barkley, and also offers some insight into what makes ultrarunners tick.
hope to plan to run a 50-miler in 2010. I would consider that to be an amazing accomplishment. But it would be a long, long way from doing a 100-miler (50 miles, to be exact), and further still from doing one of the caliber of those I’ve mentioned.
I can still think about it, though.
PS to the Blawger Survivor crew – I’m still in.
My alarm was set for 4:30 a.m., but I woke up on my own at 4:00 and knew there was no going back to sleep. I unzipped my tent and realized that the predawn air outside was every bit as warm and humid as what I had woken up to inside my tent. It was going to be a long day.
I didn’t wake my daughter Morgan, who was sleeping in the back of my jeep. Start time wasn’t until 5:30, and while she wasn’t running, I knew she was going to have a long day as well. I worked my way through my prerace checklist. Shorts, shirt, socks, shoes. I had filled my water bottles the night before – water in the handheld and Gatorade in the belt carrier. I tucked some gels, a ziplock baggie with a dozen Advil, and a couple of bandaids in my pockets. Lube in a couple of choice spots, bandaids on the nipples, bandana around my neck. I pulled my running gloves out of my bag and chuckled to myself. Wouldn’t be needing those today.
It wasn’t long before Morgan was up, and we went down to the shelter for prerace check-in. The atmosphere wasn’t quite as lighthearted as it had been at the pizza dinner the night before. Most of the gathering runners seemed intent on last minute preparations for the task ahead -a few stretching, most taking periodic sips from their water bottles. A fellow runner obliged when I asked him to take a photo of Morgan and me, and before I knew it we were lining up for the start.
We sang the National Anthem, race director David Horton said a prayer (I had already offered up several of my own), and we were off into the darkness.
The first few miles up the gravel road were uneventful. I took it easy on this stretch, knowing (courtesy of Keith Knipling’s race report) that it was all uphill and that there were roughly 30 miles awaiting beyond it. In retrospect, I probably should have gone out a bit stronger; I thought I was mid-pack but I realized later that I was actually farther back than that. Hard to tell where you are in the dark.
We soon hit the aid station #1, and I dropped my headlamp in the designated box and kept on moving. I had already taken a few sips from my water bottle but it was still nearly full and I didn’t feel the need for anything else.
The next 10 or so miles was a mixture of horse trails and fire roads. A good bit of it was still uphill, but I was keeping a moderate pace and feeling fairly strong. We finally got to some fairly steep downhill singletrack, and I opened it up. I really enjoy this aspect of trail running, flying downhill, stutterstepping my way over rocks and roots, staying in control but realizing all the while that I’m a hair’s breadth away from wiping out. (Hey, the only ultra award that I’ll ever have a shot at is “Best Blood”, so I might as well give it a go.)
The euphoria of this section was short-lived. By mile 15 or so, the heat was really starting to take its toll, even though it was still fairly early in the morning. I had been through several aid stations by this point, and I was refilling my water bottles at each one. The aid stations were well-stocked with cookies, saltines, pretzels, fruit, and my favorite ultramarathon snack, boiled potatoes with a bowl of salt to dip them in. I tried to keep eating – you cannot go for 34 miles on an empty stomach – but my stomach wasn’t taking it well. GI distress was not something that I had planned on. Oh well.
I pushed on. About mile 20, my knee started talking to me. By mile 20.1, my knee started screaming at me. By mile 20.2, I was limping and wondered if I was going to be able to make it. I had considered and rejected wearing my knee band, as my normally troublesome knee had been behaving lately. I took off my bandana, rolled it tight, and tied it off below my kneecap. This improvised knee band saved me; it kept my kneecap in place and before too long I was back to focusing on the heat and the 14 miles I had left to go.
The placement of the sixth aid station is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it’s at mile 26, the finish line for a traditional marathon. Second, it precedes the hardest 3 miles of the race – the climb up Apple Orchard Falls. In retrospect, I should have lingered a bit longer at that aid station.
I knew that I had a tough climb ahead. We had yet to tackle the third peak in the iconic Promise Land elevation profile, and we only had 8 miles left to go. As if I had any doubt, a runner passed me as we headed up the trail and commented that “this is the hardest part of the course.” He also threw out a “you’re looking strong, keep it up”, but I believed his first comment more than his second.
I would really like to run up the Apple Orchard Falls trail as a 5K. I’m sure it would be a great run – the scenery is beautiful, and the falls themselves are breathtaking. But, running up that trail after already having run a marathon, with those mountains, and in that heat, was the hardest three miles that I’ve ever run. I say “run” but in truth I didn’t do much running on this stretch. My focus was on making forward progress, not on speed. Even the forward progress became a stop-and-start affair. I’d make it to one of the yellow Montrail streamers marking the trail, get on the uphill side of a tree, and lean back against it to rest. I saw several other runners doing the same, while others were sitting down on the boulders alongside the trail. I didn’t follow suit – I was afraid that if I sat down, I might not be able to get back up. Every time I stopped and leaned back against a tree, I would say a prayer for strength to help me finish. And, every time I said a prayer, I would feel a breeze that would give me the motivation to keep going.
The falls and stream alongside the trail saved me from getting into some real heat-related trouble. More than once I went off the trail and dunked my head into the cold water. At one point I waded in a thigh-deep pool and stepped into a natural shower rushing down over the rocks. The water was cold enough to take my breath away – exactly what I needed to knock my body temperature down by several degrees.
I’m not sure how long that 5K up the mountain took. It had to be close to an hour. It seemed longer. Eventually, though, it came to an end and I only had 5 miles of mostly downhill running left to go. I filled my long-empty water bottles at the mountaintop aid station (I should have filled them in the creek, but I guess my heat-addled mind didn’t think of that). By this point I realized that I had no hope of beating my goal of finishing in under 8 hours. I also knew, though, that barring some unforeseen calamity I was in good shape for beating the 10-hour cutoff time for an “official” finish. I plodded on – running where I could, walking where I couldn’t.
Four miles. Three miles. Through the last aid station and back on the gravel road that I had traveled in the dark some 8 hours earlier. I really wanted to run those last three miles. My quads and blisters disagreed. We reached a compromise and settled on a shuffle. My only goal at this point was to beat 9 hours.
I saw the finish line up ahead with about three minutes to spare. My shuffle turned into a run. I had the presence of mind to switch my water bottle from my right hand to my left – I wanted that hand free to shake David Horton’s hand at the finish. “Congratulations, strong finish,” he said. And it was done.
Morgan took my elbow and led me over to the creek. I waded out to the middle and sat down in the cold water, joining a number of other runners. Amazing relief. After a few minutes of that, I sat down in a lawn chair at the finish line, savored the hamburger and Mountain Dew that Morgan had brought me, and cheered in the remaining runners. It was amazing how great I felt at that point, considering how low I had been feeling just a few hours earlier. I have added that memory to the emotional reservoir that I will need to pull from during the latter stages of races to come.
And there will be more.
Six days to go before my biggest running challenge yet. But first, a bit of background….
In the fall of 2007 I ran my first marathon – the OBX marathon. I was (and am) proud of this achievement. But, in retrospect, it was a relatively easy marathon – to the extent that a marathon can be easy. I wanted more.
I got it a few months later, when I ran my first ultramarathon – the Holiday Lake 50K++. At 34(ish) miles through the woods on trails and fire roads, Holiday Lake bore little resemblance to the flat asphalt of OBX. I was hooked on running long distances through the woods. Still, I realized that as far as trail ultramarathons go, Holiday Lake was pretty tame, and there were bigger adventures to be had.
While realizing that I preferred trails, I returned to the roads for the Charlottesville Marathon a couple of months later. I wanted to run this one for two reasons. First, it was my hometown marathon, so I felt like I should check it off of the list. Second, it was supposed to be tough, with some big hills. I wasn’t disappointed.
So, I ran an “easy” marathon and then a more difficult one. I ran an “easy” ultramarathon and … you can guess what’s coming up next weekend. The Promise Land 50K++ ((thanks Keith Knipling for the great race report) is my next step along the ultramarathon progression. Billed as “The Toughest 50K You Will Ever Love”, it runs over the tallest mountain in central Virginia (twice), and boasts 7,300 feet of climb over its 34 miles. I think this one will constitute a “more difficult” ultramarathon.
And what after that? Assuming I get through Promise Land, there is no shortage of challenges to choose from. A 50K (even a Horton 50K++) is a short race, by ultramarathon standards. Ultras also come in 50 mile, 100K and 100 mile flavors, and some even push beyond that. As long as my knees, my wife, and the good Lord allow, there are lots of possibilities….
But first, I have to get through Promise Land.
As with every race, I set off at the start of Holiday Lake with several goals in mind. My primary goal was to finish within the 8-hour cutoff time. I didn’t think that would be a problem, unless something really bad happened. My secondary goal was to beat 7 hours. I thought that was doable in light of my 6:39:35 time from last year, but could be a challenge, as the course had been changed with the addition of more trails and more hills. My uber goal was to beat last year’s time. Given the hillier course and my inconsistent training, I figured that would be a stretch.
Many races have a hill at the start to spread the runners out, and Holiday Lake was no exception. The first half mile was a gradual incline up the road leading out of the camp. I had started out toward the back of the pack, but couldn’t resist passing a number of runners as we made our way up the hill at an easy jog. While it was important to conserve energy in light of the 33+ miles that lay ahead of us, I knew that we were headed for a logjam as soon as the course moved on to the trail.
Toward the top of the hill, the course took a sharp right-hand turn into the woods, and runners took a momentary pause as they merged into the single-file procession. No flying elbows or aggressive jockeying for position here; there would be many miles ahead in which to make up for any lost time. While the run up the road had been conversational, even communal, things got much quieter once we entered the woods. Conversations waned as the runners we had been running next to were now either in front of us or behind us on the singletrack trail. We put our focus on trying to find a rhythm, even as we stutter-stepped in the dark to avoid roots and rocks in the trail. Focus also turned inward, as we contemplated the magnitude of the trek that lay ahead.
I don’t remember much about that first 16+ mile loop. The sun came up, we chugged along. After a few miles we hit the first aid station, grabbed some cookies, and chugged along. Another aid station, and another, grab more cookies, refill water bottle, and more chugging along. Somewhere in there we met up with the leaders, passing us by in the opposite direction on their second loop. Man, they made it look easy.
I hit the halfway point at 2:50, feeling a lot stronger than I had a right to. I was on pace to finish in 5:40 – nearly an hour faster than last year. Uh, oh. The next 16+ miles could be interesting. Still, I discarded my initial goals of beating the 8 hour cutoff, and breaking 7 hours. I had a shot at breaking 6.
I took off my long-sleeved shirt, stuffed it in my drop bag, took some vitamin A (Advil), stuffed a couple of extra gels in my shorts pocket, refilled my water bottle, and took off, retracing the loop in the opposite direction. Over the next couple of miles, I studied the faces of the runners who were still coming into the turnaround. Some looked strong, some looked like they were in trouble. I wondered how I looked to them.
My legs got heavy as I started to feel the miles. I made sure to keep taking in fuel at each aid station, but I was starting to feel the effects of that as well. I knew that I was burning a lot of it off and would quickly run out of gas if I didn’t keep eating and drinking, but my stomach was talking to me and I wondered if I was going to be able to keep it down. I considered employing the insert-finger-down-throat technique to get it over with, but wanted to avoid that if possible. I chugged on.
I ran through most of the 20’s with the same 10 or so people. We’d occasionally pass each other, then be passed, then pass again, but were all running at essentially the same pace. We chugged on.
Then, finally, the last aid station. Just 4 miles to go. I checked my watch – 5:20. Just 4 easy, 10-minute miles, and I would break 6 hours.
There was no way, and I knew it. My legs felt like they weighed 100 pounds each, and there was almost no gas left in the tank. I ran like a wind-up car – I’d start off running, then my legs would override my brain and slow down to a walk. I’d take off running again, then slow down. Start again, then slow down.
Finally, we reached the road. Just a half mile to go, and downhill at that. Gravity and the sound of the crowd at the finish line took over, and I managed to keep a steady pace through the finish, coming in at 6:15. A long way from 5:59, but I was happy.
I very nearly did not run the 2009 Holiday Lake 50K++. It wasn’t because there was any question about whether I had trained properly for the ultramarathon. There was no question at all – I hadn’t. In fact, when a friend noted a week prior to the race that I must be in “taper mode”, my wife had a hard time keeping her muffled snicker from escalating into an all-out guffaw. Taper from what? Tapering presumes training, and my sporadic running routine of late could hardly be called training.
But still, I was intent upon running, believing that muscle memory from last year’s race, stubbornness, and the fact that the cutoff had been extended to 8 hours would allow me to get a coveted finisher’s shirt.
Then, on the Thursday before I was to leave for the race, my Dad got sick. Seeing your father in a hospital bed with IVs stuck in both arms can readjust your priorities in a hurry. There would be other races. This was my only father. I emailed the race director that I wouldn’t be running.
So, Friday evening found me in my Dad’s hospital room instead of the pre-race pasta dinner at Holiday Lake. There was no question in my mind that that was where I belonged. Then, toward the end of the visit, Dad asked me if I was running the next day. I said “no” and tried to change the subject – I had hoped that it wouldn’t come up. His eyes locked on mine and he asked me why I wasn’t running. I stalled. While he had made it clear in the past that he thought that running ultras was excessive and even unhealthy, I knew he would be upset at the thought of me canceling on account of him. I hedged and made a comment about the race being held again next year. “Good luck tomorrow,” he said, and closed his eyes. That was that; there would be no more discussion. I was running.
By the time I got home from the hospital, it was close to 8:00 p.m. I wolfed down supper – I had hardly eaten anything all day – and hurriedly finished the packing that I had begun a couple of days before. By the time I had finished ooh’ing and ah’ing over the Valentines that my 5-year-old had collected at his school party and read him a bedtime story, it was after 9:00 p.m., and I still had a 2-hour drive ahead of me. Finally, though, I was in the car and headed toward Holiday Lake, buoyed by my family’s hugs and good wishes, and chuckling at my son’s instruction to “win”. At this point I was seriously just hoping that I would finish.
A couple of hours later, I pulled into a dark parking lot at Holiday Lake. There were a number of vehicles in the lot, but apart from the hum of a generator powering the heater on a nearby RV, all was quiet. That suited me fine, as I all wanted to do was crash. My original plan had been to camp, but it was late, dark and cold, so I decided to sleep in my jeep instead of going through the effort of pitching my tent. I reclined my seat as far back as it would go, draped my sleeping bag over me, and tried to go to sleep.
A cold and fitful few hours later, it was 5:00 a.m. and time to check in at the registration table in the dining hall. I made it inside the building, gave my name at the registration table, and was told I wasn’t on the list. It didn’t take long (after a momentary panic) to figure out that my name had been removed based on my emailed notification that I was canceling, and they handed me my bib.
At 6:25 a.m. I joined 256 other runners at the starting line, and after singing the National Anthem and hearing some final instructions from the race director, we were off into the dark.
Part II to follow….