May 26, 2008

Western States Training Camp -- May 2008

Saturday morning, May 24, 2008. At first I thought it was just a dream. But the sound grew louder and louder until it hit me like a cold slap of reality as I lay in bed. Raindrops. They first hit their mark above my head one at a time. Then they came with greater frequency. Finally, to a wet, roaring crescendo.

Participating in the "official" Western States training runs is recommended for first time WS runners. You get to experience the trail, understand the challenge in front of you and, weather permitting, taste the heat you’ll encounter race day. Apparently the weather permitting section wasn’t in the cards for us this weekend.

Waiting for our bus

Saturday’s run started with an hour long bus ride along Mosquito Ridge to a drop off point 5 miles from the actual WS trail. From there we ran along a very wet dirt and gravel road lined with pockets of snow. As the runners tread upon soggy trail, the grey skies wept with cold rain and sleet. My Asics Trail GT 2130’s were soaked to my skin in the first 10 minutes, but held on firmly around my feet.

Greetings along the trail

Our first contact with the "official" WS trail was Dusty Corners, an aid station 38 miles into the 100 mile course. From there we dropped into a meandering single track trail under a shadow of dense pine. The rain continued to fall in the dark forest when we reached Last Chance, mile 43.3 of the course and the starting point of the wicked "canyon" section. Under typical race day sun, temperatures of this section push well past 100 degrees. After Last Chance we continued into a 2.5 mile, 2’200 foot decent to Deadwood Canyon followed by the most difficult section of the race, a 1'800 foot climb to Devils Thumb.

Rob and I stopping for water

The Ultra Encounter. As I stood on the side of the trail taking yet another blog picture, I heard my pacer Rob McNair yell to a runner passing. "Hey Tweet, its Rob McNair". I glanced up and saw it was Tim Twietmeyer, 25 time finisher and 5 time winner of Western States 100. The two trail veterans exchanged a few words as I fumbled with my camera. Then, just like that, "Tweet" was off. Rob and I continued down the steep lower section of the canyon.

Just like that....Tweet (white jacket) running down trail

When we came upon the small footbridge at the bottom of Deadwood Canyon, Tweet and his friends were waiting for another runner. Rob grabbed my camera and asked Tweet if he would take a photo with me. Of course as I stood there watching Rob (wearing wet gloves) attempt to take a photo of me with one of the greatest ultra runners of all time, I realized the running gods would have to be in complete alignment. And just as Rob pushed the button, and the blackberry slipped from his soggy hands, it occurred to me that this moment was deemed by the gods to be captured only in my mind, and not to be recorded in the trivial annals of my blog. Then Tweet asked if this was my first WS run, and I said it was. He pointed out the river below us was a good place to douse yourself during the race, before climbing the 1’800 foot Devils Thumb in 100+ degree heat.

Rob and I pushed on, up the relentless Devils Thumb switchbacks, talking with several others as we power walked up and into the dripping clouds. Once we crested this brutal incline and started running again I slipped on some loose mud and ended up nearly head over heals and on my butt. Unhurt, but with an orange like slime dripping from my butt cheek all the way down my leg, I wondered if others wouldn't see this as some other kind of accident. As we came into the aid station I turned to see Twietmeyer running up behind us. Observing the grime dripping from my hip, Tweet asked if had taken a spill. "Yea I took a dive", I said, to which he replied "Rookie!" I had to point out amidst the laughter from the other runners that if I could choose anyone to call me a rookie, it would be Tweet.

"Rookie" running down the trail

When we finally finished the run, we’d run down to El Dorado Creek, up to Michigan Bluff then back to Bath Road and Forest Hill. We’d covered 27.1 miles and we were soaked to the bone. After finding a pitcher of beer in Auburn, we drove back to the home of Earl Towner and his wife Jennifer Mitchell, who graciously put us up for the weekend. That night, Earl, a 10th place finisher of Western States, shared many tactics with me about how I should run the course on race day. Key among them was to start slow! Jennifer, a local poet who has written many poems about Western States and experiences in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, made us all a great home cooked meal. After some good conversation I climbed into bed by 8:30 and was fast asleep.

Sunday morning, May 25th. This next day brought better weather and more ultra encounters. We started from Forest Hill and ran along the side of the Middle Fork of the American River. The trail progressed all the way to Rucky Chucky, where runners normally cross the river and head toward Auburn. This 16 mile section of the trail is beautiful and ideal for running. It’s mostly downhill single track, with a few short uphill sections. Many runners flew down this section, which may or may not be possible on race day with 62 miles under your belt.

Running single track from Forest Hill

Once we reached Rucky Chucky many of us walked down to the river and soaked our feet. It was a nice break before the last three miles up hill we had to do to get back to the buses. On this day there was again no shortage of runners with impressive resumes. Included in the group was Jenn Shelton, (14:57:18 at Rocky Raccoon 100 miler), ultra god Jorge Pacheco, Ashley Nordell, Luis Escobar among many others. For me, this day was a very fun, yet humbling experience.

Walking down to the river

Cooling the feet

Ashley, Luis and Jenn

Overall this Western States training trip was well worth it. Not the ideal race simulation weather I was hoping for, but nonetheless vital experience for this "Rookie". I owe a special thanks to Rob McNair for introducing me to so many other runners and to Earl Towner and his wife Jennifer Mitchell for putting up with Rob and I over the weekend. Thanks guys and we will see you all again in June!

Earl, Jennifer and Me

Jorge, family and friends at the Airport

May 20, 2008

Into the Heat

Just when I thought I was getting strong from my training for Western States, mother nature sent me a message:
"Tread lightly along this journey, don’t be overconfident, because you are in my hands now". This weekend I heard her message loud and clear.

The Western States 100 mile endurance run takes place on June 28th when temperatures in the Sierra Nevada Mountains can reach 110 degrees. During the race, runners must consume massive amounts of liquids to compensate for the amount of sweat the body excretes to keep its core temperature down. The challenge is to keep your stomach "working" while you push fluids, salt, gels and food into it while your heart continues to pump blood to the muscles and organs. This is complicated because an active stomach must divert precious blood supply away from the working muscles, or else it shuts down. If this happens, well, the game is over. Dehydration, hyponatremia, nausea, vomiting, heat exhaustion, and a host of other complications rear their ugly heads. Many a runner of great promise has been dwarfed by a failure of this simple, yet symbiotic relationship between the heart and stomach.

This weekend marked my first foray into heat training for WS 100. I had no plans, no strategic route to run. I just knew it was going to be hot and I needed to get out and run in the heat. This would allow my body to adapt to conditions it will face come race day. To date most of my runs have been in relatively comfortable conditions with no real mishaps. Something told me this was about to change.

Saturday, May 17, 2008: Seeking the sun at its highest arch, I started my run at 1:30 in the afternoon. It was 95 degrees when I left my house. I started with two 20 ounce water bottles, E-Gels, salt tabs and Cliff blocks. As I ran the first few miles up Buck Gully, I felt sluggish. My energy felt like it was evaporating from my body. I pressed on until I got to the hot, single track trail at Coyote Canyon.

As I entered the trial I noticed several black dots swirling around ahead of me. I continued up the trail until I was surprised by a loud buzzing in my hair. I looked up and I was in the midst of a swarm of bees. I turned around and immediately started running back down the trail while slapping at my head. I couldn't get the little bugger out of my hair! Then, just as I was expecting a sharp sting to the skull, I looked down and the little guy was stinging my arm. As if training for a 100 mile race in a heat wave isn't enough already! Note to self: did I really sign up for this program?

Single Track Trail...Seconds before Bees

I continued on and on a more positive note, found myself the middle of beautiful Bommer Canyon which I hadn't run before. After I climbed out of the canyon I encountered another swarm of bees. This time, while they chased me for several yards, I turned before they established radio contact with my sauteed skin. With no other options I had to cross the 73 toll road to finish my run via the top of El Moro and Spyglass Hill.

73 Toll Road Crossing

I planned on running Sunday with my WS pacer Rob McNair in Chino Hills. "You need to get into some radiant heat before Western" he kept telling me. This is heat that comes at you from all sides, the ground, the sky, the canyon walls. As if getting "cooked" on one side at a time isn't good enough. One must be "baked" on all sides to gain a real appreciation of heat.

So after spending five hours at my daughter's swim meet in 96 degrees of "radiant" heat, I met Rob to follow him out to Carbon Canyon, one of his recommended hottest places to run in Orange County. As we were driving I realized I forgot my shoes. Looking down at my flip flops, I had to make a choice: bag the run in Carbon Canyon, or figure out a plan B. I pulled over to a donut shop and, before Rob could lodge a single complaint, I told him to follow me, because the donut shop keeper informed me there was a Big Five Sporting Goods store two blocks away. I found my ASICS Gel Strive II's on sale for $49.95 in less than two minutes and we were out the door.

Asics Gel Strive II, $49.99 on Sale

Carbon Canyon is nestled in Chino Hills and is an ideal place to run in sweltering heat. There is no shade and not a whole lot of breeze. We started the run with two bottles of water each. Since it was 12 miles to the next water stop, we had to conserve as much as we could.

Once we made it to the ranger station to refill, I was beginning to realize what it was like to be hot and thirsty. A good sign that my body was being tested. We doused ourselves to bring our core body temp down as much as possible. When we finally made it back to our cars, the temperature reading was 104 degrees. Total mileage for the weekend: just under 36 miles. All in all, two solid training runs in conditions similar to the grand trail coming June 28th.

May 6, 2008

Why Music Matters To a Runner

There is something about music to a runner. At least this runner. I can run without music, and often do. I enjoy the natural sounds in the space around me. Yet a song, be it piercing or rhythmic, mystic or haunting, can pull my energy back from the arms of fatigue. The right song, at the right moment, can, even if only for a moment, overwhelm my exhaustion with euphoria. Bring a shiver to my soiled skin. Even relax my tense muscles.

One early morning last year I was getting dressed and ready for the Helen Klein 50 mile run. A song came into my head. It was Kid A by Radiohead. I don’t know why, but I just started humming the tune, its austere, serene rhythm. I quickly picked up my Ipod and searched for the song. I found it. As I walked toward the starting line of the race I was listening to it over and over. Normally I’m very nervous before a race, but at this moment I remember feeling a sense of calm, a stillness that seemed to come from the music.

Late in the race, as my legs were growing weary, I played a song list that I had prepared for that moment. These songs exude energy and carried me during earlier runs: “Crush” by Paul Van Dyke (one of my daughter’s favorites); “Harvey and the Old Ones” by Banco de Gaia; “Next is the E” by Moby; “Amo Bishop Roden” by Boards of Canada; and the ever-lifting “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters. I crested the last hill at mile 49 and could see the turn to the finish line. Every muscle in me was screaming to slow down. Somehow I didn’t. I made it to the finish, 10th place overall, a mere 5 seconds ahead of the next runner.

As the WS 100 mile race approaches another song enters my mind. It’s “Nude” by Radiohead, one of my favorite songs. I visualize myself coming through the finish line, stronger than I’ve ever felt as a runner. I clinch my fist in the air. Could this be? To finish WS 100 mile run through the mountains feeling on top of the world? Then I hear Nude playing in my head, I notice its tenderness, and the gradual, escalating tenor of Thom York’s piercing voice as he delivers the final lyric—“you’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking”.

A chill runs down my neck.

Control Click the Link below to play the Song “Nude”:

May 3, 2008

Thirty Miles. Five Canyons

Living at the foot of the San Joaquin Hills in the OC has its benefits. When I called Jeff Padilla last night to see if he wanted to run today, I suggested we should start from my house and run into the SJ Hills. Running from my house is usually an easy sale with Jeff, largely because my outside fridge is always filled with cold Coronas. "I'll see you at 7 am" he said just as I was about to walk out the door to go out to dinner with my wife Jen and friends. Jeff was only planning on doing 15 miles, or half of the 30 miles I was planning on running.

Jeff Padilla. The Man. The Legend. The Elvis.

6:50 a.m. -- Doorbell rings, Jeff is here. Kids and wife are asleep, now awake. I hastily assemble my gear. Gel in canister-check. Cliff blocks-check. Energy bars-check. Salt tablets-check. Trameal (anti inflamitory)-check. Emergency TP-check. Heart rate monitor-check. Garmin-check. Ipod-check. Sunglasses-check. Shorts (really now)-check. Sunscreen on-check. Who said running was simple? We're out the door at 7:10 a.m.

Jeff descending single track Coyote Canyon

Top of El Moro Canyon

The San Joaquin Hills consist of 17,201 acres of grasslands, coastal sage, chaparral, and riparian and oak woodlands. From upper Newport Bay these hills extend approximately 16 miles to Oso and Trabuco creeks, and includes Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and Aliso/Wood Canyons Reg. Park. To the east looms OC's majestic Saddleback Mountain and to the west the mighty Pacific Ocean, both within view when running the ridge lines. Simply put, the San Joaquin Hills are a beautiful, inspiring place.

View Acsending from Laguna Canyon

Our course took us from a few hundred feet at the start along upper Coyote Canyon to the top of Signal Peak (1,161'), the highest point in the range. From there the views are full and panoramic. Newport Bay below, Palos Verdes above, Catalina to the left. Keep turning. Laguna Beach, the entire San Joaquin Range, El Moro Canyon, Irvine Valley, Saddleback Mountain. They are all there, looking at you look at them.

Signal Peak - 1,161'

We continued on down the trail. Jeff turned to the ocean to head back while I soldiered on toward the warm canyons. My first decent was into El Moro Canyon via "Slow and Easy". This was a good 1.5 mile trail that descends to the bottom of the canyon. From there I headed right back up via "Elevator", the first hill we encounter on Saltwater5000. Once I crested the top I began another long decent to Laguna Canyon via Bommer Ridge.

Salt Tabs. Don't leave home without 'em.

Long descents are golden training opportunities for me for Western States 100. I'm told most runners that drop out of the WS 100 do so not because of the uphills, but because of the pounding of the down hills. The quads get so beat up that people can't continue. I liked this hill so much I turned around and ran up and down it again.

Pain. What Pain?

After "canyoning" twice at Laguna Canyon, I headed back up to the ridge and descended again into El Moro Canyon. From there I headed toward the ocean to finish up the run on the beach along Crystal Cove. I hit the beach at 25 miles and added another 5 on the hard sand.

Not a bad day at the office.

Tunnel to Chrstal Cove State Beach...Alas.