July 24, 2013

Vermont 100 - Listening to the Right Voice

To do the job right, it took four hands. Two to unroll the clear packing tape, which I was quickly learning wasn’t the best choice when taping nylon against nylon, and another two to hold the pieces together as the tape was applied.

I did a quick look around us. My suspicions were confirmed. Lobster and I were the only ones attempting to “tape” a tent together at the Vermont 100 mile camp site. “I wish I had my duct tape,” Lobster kept saying. I mustered all my strength just to contain my laughter. All the other runners had these really slick looking Marmot and REI tents. Ours? Well the tape job lasted about two minutes before a gentle breeze picked up and the entire thing collapsed.

“Hey Lobster.” I said. “Yea?” he replied. “What do you say we stay in my hotel room tonite? “Sure.”

The Vermont 100 mile endurance run is an old school 100 miler celebrating its 25th year in 2013. It takes place in a beautiful part of the country known for its covered bridges, horse trails and small farms. It is also one of the few 100 milers where humans run along side horses on the same course and on the same day.

To put things bluntly, the Vermont 100 beat the hmmm hmmm out of me. I came to run the race with certain expectations, and I left with a good old whoop’n by the running gods. But I did learn a few valuable lessons along the way. 

Lesson number one - don't assume you know what you don't know.

For some reason I assumed Vermont was some easy, gentle course I would be able to cruise through without breaking my stride. Looking back, I'm not sure what it was about 14,000 feet of elevation GAIN I didn’t comprehend. There were climbs in this race that were as steep as UTMB. Sure, maybe not as long, but there was some serious hiking I didn’t expect.  

Lesson number two - don't be an idiot.

At the start I reminded myself that the real starting line isn’t until mile 70, and to take it easy so I could really run the last 30 miles. And, like an idiot, I ran with reckless abandon for the first 20 miles. There were some really run-able downhills, including one on pavement for several miles. I felt like a kid in a candy store here. It felt so easy. I kept pushing and pushing, feeling the miles tick away. But then I came into an aid station toward the end of the long paved descent. I walked up to grab some liquids, and felt a sharp pain shoot through both my quads. Uh oh....

I continued on, a little concerned but still feeling good. What is the big deal I thought? So what if I went out a little fast? My body will recover I kept saying to myself. Well I arrived at the 50 mile in 8 hours and 37 minutes, nearly an hour ahead of where I should have been.  

Then reality started to creep in. After 50 miles, I was really struggling to run down hill. If my quads were serving as my racing tires early in the race, they were now losing PSI rapidly. I could almost hear the running gods telling me I had my chance and blew it. I had a plan and abandoned it. Now it was time for me to pay the price. So they took away my secret weapon – running down hill. I simply couldn’t do it. My deflated quads rendered me to hunched over, hobbling hobbit on the descents.

What an idiot I am I kept thinking to myself. But what I’ve learned about 100 milers is that you have time to adapt as long as you don’t give up. I figured if I can't run downhill, I can at least try to run everything else. So I rallied a little and got my rhythm back on some flat sections and even on some of the climbs. Through this cycle I was able pass several people who had passed me on the descents.

Lesson number three - if you run without a pacer, be prepared to get lost without a pacer.

Runners were allowed to have pacers from mile 70 on. I decided not to have a pacer. Why? I wanted to go-it-alone to get the full machismo experience of a 100 mile race. The result of this was, well, not good. I got lost twice, the first time around mile 73 and the second time around mile 88. 

By now, after starting out like an idiot and blowing up my quads, getting lost twice, running 88 miles by myself, my mental capacities were deteriorating. I was approaching the mental fortitude of a 3 year old lost and wondering a county fair. Why am I even out here? What the #@!% do I care if I even finish? And on and on. I was yelling at the stars and the full moon. And the running gods were laughing at me!

The second time I got lost was the best. It was dark out then and I had turned a down a trail with all kinds of blinking lights and glow sticks. I knew I was getting close to the last major aid station. As I continued running I could hear voices and see a lot of activity. As I got closer my energy started to spike as I knew the aid station was just a few more steps away. There I would be able to get my final nutritional boost and begin the final stretch to the finish line.

I rounded the corner and burst into the parking lot. All the voices I heard immediately turned silent. People looked shocked to see me. Then one lady yelled out "I'm sorry son you're in the wrong place. This is a horse aid station." She quickly escorted me out of there, pointing me in the right direction. 

When I finally rolled into the final aid station I told Lobster, who got to witness my trail tantrum first hand at this point, that I was done with this race. My chance of running under 20 hours was gone. I ran like an idiot. And I was going to just walk it in. That was that. So I just sucked down some chicken soup, drank some Ginger Ale, and ambled once again into the darkness.

Lesson number four - Listen to the right voice.

By the time I ambled into the darkness one last time, there was this voice in my head that was livid and stubbornly wanted me to give up. It spoke only of frustration, exhaustion and disappointment. I continued to listen to this voice as I stumbled forward. This was the same voice I would hear whenever I reminded myself about getting lost, or making the mistakes I'd made. 

But just as soon as I looked at my watch, and believed I still had a shot to break 20 hours, then another voice spoke. This voice was also stubborn, but told me not to give up, and to keep running. Thankfully, in those final miles as I ambled along that dark trial, it was this second voice that spoke to me louder than the first. My final time was 20 hours and 27 minutes, a new PR and reminder that the journey is the reward.  

Thank you Lobster for crewing me out there. You did a great job keeping the Vespa flowing and the Petty roaring. Smoooookeeey!    

July 17, 2013

Death Ride 2013 - The Natural Cycle

Last year, when my brother told me that he was training for the Death Ride 2013, a 130 mile road ride that ascends 15,000 feet through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I didn’t know what to say. All I could muster was “really?” All I knew was this was a really a lofty goal, even for the fittest of cyclists. It would require months of training for four and five hours or more at a time on the bike, week after week.

Despite having a lot of experience on the bike, my brother wasn’t in what I considered, well, top form. His training consisted of a ride or two per week at best, and often not on a bike but on a standup paddleboard. The pounds he had put on over the years were not going to help. I told him it would be possible if he lost weight and trained properly for it. What I didn’t tell him was that he had never done anything like this before and his chances of pulling this off were slim at best.

Weeks passed. Then months. He seemed enthusiastic about his training, more so than I had seen in many years. But the work had only just begun if he was going to successfully tame this dragon. Then I received a call from him one weekend. I was on a trail run. He told me he’d just finished a training ride on the Angeles Crest Highway. He said he rode over 100 miles in the heat and wind and gained thousands of feet of elevation. And he had done it solo.

I noticed something about his voice on this call. It wasn’t the voice of an exhausted cyclist who had just finished a major training ride, someone struggling to get back in shape. It was more like a voice of a child who had just returned from summer camp. He described the ride in vivid detail -  catching other riders that appeared like silhouettes in the distance, feeling the searing heat from the black pavement, passing beneath the trees of the San Gabriel Mountains.

It occurred to me that, like a child, he had found his pleasure again. Under the big blue sky, riding his bicycle as nature greeted him. But unlike a child, he rode to regain his health. His peace of mind.

It was 4 a.m. when the alarm went off. Three of us were shacked up in a tiny, one bed cabin. My dad, who decided to join me on the trip to crew my brother during the Death Ride, insisted on sleeping on the floor. “I could hear mice scampering around the place all night,” he grumbled when we woke. My brother and I just laughed and shook our heads. Without his hearing aids, he could hardly hear us yelling at him.

Just before 5 am, my brother mounted his bike, flipped on his light, and was off. It was still dark and cold at 39 degrees, but the riders didn’t hesitate. What followed was a long day on the bike for him, and a lot of hours under the hot sun for my dad and I. I’ve never crewed for a cycling event and I found it to be a lot of fun. I’m sure my brother’s strong effort was a big part of this.

He rode conservatively for most of the day using what he had learned from his long training rides and his heart rate monitor and finished ahead of most of the other 3,500 riders. When it was over, he simply got off his bike, and I looked at him and my dad. I could see a connection I hadn’t seen in while. Then the three of us walked around the exhibitor area, ate some homemade berry pie, and talked about the event.

Some people ask, why ride 130 miles? Or run 100 miles? Better yet, why do two brothers do these things? If it is true that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, then we can only thank our dad for this blessing, or curse, depending on your perspective. He ran every single day when my brother and I were growing up, and he still works out with a trainer.

Other people shake there heads at these fitness endeavors. And I shake my head at them. We now live in a society that is experiencing an epidemic of disease and disability directly related to modern lifestyle. It is said that our kids may be the first who will live shorter lives than their parents. 

To the doubters out there, try to understand that it all starts with the fact that getting on a bike or going for a run are natural states of being that we all need. Without these or other forms of exercise, our bodies and minds will, eventually, simply wither away. A sacrifice to modern society’s vicious cycle. It finishes with the fact that as parents we are, more than anything else, role models to our children.

When a child sees a parent get on a bike or go for a run everyday, they remember it. When a child sees a parent return from a ride or run, stronger physically and mentally, they remember that too.  

But, above all else, when a parent sees a child return from a ride or a run, the natural cycle is complete, and the parent is fulfilled.

Congratulations Al. You rode an amazing ride. We are all proud of you!

July 6, 2013

Strategy. Failed.

I’m not normally a promoter of fast food joints. But every now-and-then, like when I finish a 5 hour run in intense heat and run out of water, I have to make an exception.

It all started with what I thought was a brilliant strategy. Rob M and I running Serrano Creek trail up Santiago Truck trail to Old Camp. Not a big deal, some 23 miles, but this trail gets really hot and I started (on purpose) with no water. My plan was to load up at the water fountain 3 miles into the run. The grand strategy was built around one objective: not to have to carry water for 30 minute of a 5 hour run. Ok...I’m starting to realize what I'm saying here. A five hour run. 30 minutes. No water. Where are my priorities?

We arrived at the water fountain. But why wasn’t it working?

Plan B was pretty simple. “How much water are you carrying Rob?” Three bottles! Ok, give me one. We can make it and if we get in trouble, we’ll bum some from other runners or mountain bikers.”

Rob and I agreed. This wouldn’t be a hard run. Unlike 99.9% of the runs we do together, we wouldn’t push it. How could we? Instead, we vowed to do as many rollers as possible (rollers being the launching of large roundish rocks spotted on the trail above steep mountain slopes). We delivered on our agreement. I’m estimating a dozen rollers were launched.

But launching rollers don’t make up for shrunken kidneys and withering electrolytes. We (I) pushed too hard up the final climb into old camp. Something akin to reckless abandon filled my veins. As I pushed into the final climb, I realized my water well was running dry.

Water, or lack of it, changes everything. One minute you’re feeling you can run forever, the next minute you feel everything coming apart. The power you felt at one moment, is simply gone the next. Just another element in the periodic table of ultra running.

We arrived at Jack in the Box in exactly 5 hours and 11 minutes after the start. Order? Two 42 oz cups filled with 460 calories of Minute Maid Lemonade. Not a bad reward for a failed strategy.

July 1, 2013

Three Times a Charm

Putting together a good day of training when juggling other responsibilities can make for some fun and creative running. Like yesterday. I was planning on joining a group run at 7:30 am, but I forgot about the waterpolo tournament my oldest daughter was in. After consulting with the family I quickly dispensed of any idea about a group run. Instead, I grabbed my youngest daughter and did one of my favorite kind of runs: the run ride. This is when she rides the bike and I run, and we explore our neighborhood by hitting as many parks as we can. She is keen on swings and rings...so a run ride it was...at least in the am.  

As the afternoon rolled around, before taking the afternoon waterpolo shift, I followed the 6 mile run ride with an 8 mile loop around one of my favorite trails on turtle ridge. The Tarantula Hawks were out in force which kind of freaked me out given these monsters are said to have the second most painful sting in the world. It is a little strange that I run this same trail several times a week and never see these flying beasts. Maybe they only fly in the early afternoon on weekends?

After dropping off my oldest daughter at the pool, I knew I had about an hour before her game started so I drove into the hills near Villa Park. At the first trailhead I parked my car and just started running. Before long I was high on a ridge in Anaheim Hills looking at the San Gabriel Mountains and watching Red Tail hawks circle in the wind above me. Just another day in another 100 mile week with responsibilities.