Monday, April 30, 2012

Get Lost!

You might like it.

I wander off track frequently during trail runs.  It comes with the territory.  It’s not like there are street signs and traffic lights pointing the way.  Trail blazes are easy to miss when you are running and even if you are paying attention the blazes can be obscured by things like fallen trees or brush fires.

The trick is to be prepared with extra water and food just in case your run lasts a little longer than expected, let loved ones know where you will be and when to expect you to return, and to have enough awareness of your surroundings to recognize within a reasonable amount of time that you are off the trail, making back tracking easier.

For me, that’s part of the adventure and I have found some really interesting things off the beaten path.

Lost is a state of mind.

Wandering is an adventure.

Tolkien said it more eloquently:

Not all those who wander are lost.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Croom Fools Run - All the Gory Details

WARNING:  This post contains frank discussion of bodily functions, so if you are the type of person that gets titillated by a grown man discussing the color of his pee . . . well then I guess you better pull up a chair and get comfortable.

I don't think I moved from this spot
for an hour after finishing.
They say time heals all wounds. 

They also say time flies. 

Combine these two adages and the result is me day dreaming about my next ultra a mere three days after finishing Croom.  The memories of the suffering and agony are quickly fading and what is left behind is a tremendous sense of pride in the accomplishment and an intense desire to do it again.

I distinctly remember thinking to myself late in the race on Saturday that not only do I not want to attempt a 100 mile race but I may never want to attempt 50 again.  By the time I was driving home Sunday night, I was thinking – “You know, 100k is only 12 miles farther than I ran yesterday.  I think I could have done that.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

How did the race go?

Friday was stressful.  I put in half a day of work and then had to pack for the race and prepare for Easter the next day.    I consulted checklists, double checked then triple checked.  Still dissatisfied I started throwing extra items in my bag.  Extra articles of clothing, just in case.  Ridiculous crap I knew I would never need.  I was miserable with anxiety about the race.  The drive to Brooksville required about two hours including what seemed like 100 essential stops along the way.

The packet pickup helped to ease my nerves.  It was held in the Croom Forest at the location of the race start.  As soon as I pulled off of Highway 50 in Brooksville and entered the woods I felt the tension leave my shoulders.  I picked up packets for me and two friends, Chris and Jaime, then took the time to walk up the trail a bit.  My nerves finally gave way to excitement.

I ate a ridiculously huge meal at Cracker Barrel and even succumbed to the Jelly Belly Jelly Beans upsell at the register afterward.  A brief wait in a rocker on the Cracker Barrel porch to meet Chris and Jaime and my daughter and niece further helped to relax me. I spent the night at my parents’ home about another hour drive away.

My crew, looking wide awake
and alert at 5 am.  Thanks for
your help Mom.
It took hours to settle in for the evening, packing my drop bags, pinning my bib on my shorts, double triple and quadruple checking that I packed my shoes, and general pacing back and forth.  The race start was at 6 am, I wanted to be there by 5 and with an hour drive that meant getting up around 3 to give me some time to have a small breakfast and load up the car.  I had pre-arranged for Mom to chauffer me to and from the race because . . . well to be honest I had no idea what condition I would be in after finishing.  She was a sport about it especially considering her reservations about me even entering an ultra marathon.  It was almost midnight before I finally settled in to sleep.  3 hours sleep.  Fortunately I had rested well Thursday night.

Saturday morning I was actually pretty calm.  I had a bagel, banana and coffee for breakfast and we hit the road on time, even arriving at the start early.  I staked out a spot for my drop bags and a cooler and milled about waiting for the start. 

The staging area had a bit of a surreal feel with people milling about in the dark with little disks of light from headlamps flitting around.

Staging area at 5 am

I was a little nervous about the run in the dark.  I have done plenty of training runs in the dark on roads, but never on a trail.  This was going to be a unique experience.

Milliing about just before the start

We received a quick briefing about the trail markings and then we were off.  I loved the night portion of this run.  Glow sticks hanging from trees marked our way.   There was a full moon shining through the trees and the sight of a long row of headlamps bobbing up and down the trail was very cool.

 My strategy was to start slow so I intentionally positioned myself in the back of the pack.  The pace in this group was about a 12 minute mile and I found I had to be cautious about not running down the person ahead of me.  I also had to stay back far enough that I had time to react to hazards on the ground that were not visible due to the runners ahead of me.

The first three miles were on a sandy double track road, much of it very deep, so it was a bit of slog.  I found that I could almost power walk and keep up with the pack so I settled into a cycle of power walking and then jogging to catch up. 

One of the hills late in course.  This
is really unique for Florida trails
I stumbled only once on a root during the night run, catching myself on my hands without completely falling down.

After 5 miles the starter loop brought us back through the start/finish area and I reached this spot about a minute before the 50k and 15 mile racers started.  I stopped only long enough to fill my water and drop my headlamp and then I was off on my first of three 15 mile loops around the forest.

I have now run and hiked this route several times so there were no surprises.  The first 10 miles have a little bit of up and down to them but the elevation is a net decline.  The highlight is a descent into a ravine down a narrow eroded path covered with leaf litter.  That slippery leaf litter was almost my undoing on the third loop when I started to slide out of control down the descent.  I turned my ankle and had to take a few tentative steps before I was able to continue on.  The bottom of the ravine is very tropical and strewn with fallen logs so progress through this area is pretty slow.

As we approached the third aid station the route descends into a series of sink holes each with a tough climb out on the opposite end.  The final section of the loop is very hilly with 4 or 5 challenging hills including a pretty tough climb in the last mile leading up to the start/finish.

Jaime on the descent into the ravine.  This is near
where I lost traction and slid quite a ways on
top of the leaf litter on the third loop.

I had an optimistic and a reasonable goal for the race.  I figured if things went really well I might have a shot at 10 hours (12:00 pace).  My realistic goal was 11 hours (13:12 pace).  11 hours is also the qualifying time to enter the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run lottery.

Chris - on the descent into the ravine
The first loop went really well.  My goal for the race was to try to maintain a 12:00 pace or better by running a 5/1 run walk interval in the flat portions of the course and walking the inclines and running the descents and flats when the course was hilly.  Even though the experts caution against it, I hoped to “bank” a little time in the first 20 miles.  When I reached the main aid station at mile 20, I had averaged 11:56 per mile.  I was on target, but had not been able to bank any extra time.  Both the congestion in the first few miles and the more technical areas of the course slowed me down more than I expected.

Chris and Jaime on the trail
I moved pretty quickly through the small aid stations on the course, mostly stopping just long enough to refill my water and maybe grab a snack, but the main staging area was a flurry of activity.  This was the routine:

-Shake the sand and debris from my shoes

-Mix up a water bottle of Hammer Perpetuem

-Restock a pill box full of Succeed S-Caps

-Refill my water

-Drink a bottle of Boost

-Drink some water

-Choke down a little bit of food

-I also took a few Tylenol before the final loop.

Two stops at this aid station took about 10 and 12 minutes.  This was a frustratingly long time and is why many ultra runners rely on a crew to help them move quickly through aid stations.  I estimated my time at each aid station by comparing my mile splits with the miles before and after each one and figured that stops at 13 aid stations added about 50 minutes to my time with nearly half that time spent at the two stops described above.  I’m convinced that moving more efficiently through aid stations, especially the major aid stations, is the easiest way to improve my time in my next ultra.  I’ll have to start thinking like a NASCAR pit crew.

Bottom of the ravine
The second loop started very well.  The weather was still cool  but starting to warm up.  I think we hit a high of about 75 that day.  I ate a little too much at the aid station resulting in a side stitch, but it quickly subsided.

At about mile 25 I had to stop to pee.  I pulled off the trail and was mightily impressed at both the volume and clarity.  No signs of dehydration.  I have never been in that good shape so late in any run, whether a race or training.  This was a great sign because I knew the changes I made in my training and including the S-Caps for electrolyte management were working.  The race was half over and things were going perfect.

Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. 

I knew to expect lows, but expecting them and experiencing them are too very different things.  Things started to fall apart at about the 30 mile mark.  I had reached the hills in the last quarter of the loop and was finding it exhausting.  I was unable to make it to the top of the tallest hill without stopping to rest and I had to stop again at the very top, doubled over with hands on knees, before I could work up the nerve to scramble down the other side.

Bottom of the ravine
The voices in my head turned negative.  “You’ve already run farther and longer than you ever have before.  You’re tired.  You’re hurting.  Why continue. You still have that climb leading up to the next aid station.  You’ll never make it another 15 miles.  Why try?”

About this time I stopped obsessing over my pace.  I rarely even checked to look at my mile splits as they occurred and not once in the last 20 miles of the race did I toggle though the displays on my Garmin to look at the overall pace for the run.  I just didn’t care anymore.  I was doing my best and I had a sinking feeling that looking at the data would not bring me good news.

My saving grace was something I had heard in a Trail Runner Nation podcast while driving to Brooksville Friday night.  It was just an offhand comment but it struck a chord with me.

“Suck it up Buttercup.” 

It was this mantra that got me through the dark place.  This is what I signed up for.  The low is just part of the experience, something that I will be proud that I overcame.  Just keep moving forward.  So I did, but it wasn’t easy.

Mile 35.  Can you tell how much I think things suck at that moment?

When I reached the main aid station at mile 35 I was still feeling horrible and plagued with doubt.  The 50k finishers were done for the day and bubbling with excitement, particularly Jaime who had just finished her first ultra and had a great race.  I still had another 15 miles to run.  I posed for a few pictures and when I look at those pictures now it doesn’t show, but I was in a very bad place.  I moved as efficiently as I could through my resupply routine and tried to be conversational.  I even stole a sip of beer from Jaime which helped a little.  When I stood up and headed for the trail again that was the worst I felt physically during the entire race.  I was sore in places I never experience pain while running.  The soles of my feet, my lower legs, quads, hips nothing felt right.  At that moment I didn’t think there was any way I would make it another 15 miles.

This is me trying to congratulate and be happy for
Jaime but dreading the next 15 miles.

Fortunately, nothing lasts forever.

By some miracle, by the time I reached the next aid station things were looking up.  I don’t know if it was the Tylenol I had taken at the aid station, the extra calories I had consumed, or maybe a compassionate act of God, but I felt better.  My legs felt like they were moving with a good rhythm again. My stride felt right.  The pain eased.   My confidence returned and I when I thought about the remaining 10 miles left in the race the qualifier “only” came to mind.  Only 10 more miles.  It was a  small thing but it marked a complete turnaround in my frame of mind.

Jaime - climbing out of one of the sinkholes
I stopped to pee again.  The volume was a little lower and the color a little darker, but I have seen worse, much worse.  I was still in good shape.  Another small thing.  It may seem odd, but a good pee helped to lift my spirits too.

At the aid station at mile 43 I came across a runner in distress.  He looked to be in bad shape but was receiving aid under the shade of an umbrella.  It was a frightening thing to see but I also realized that I was only 7 miles from the finish.  I was well hydrated, my electrolytes were good, and I still had energy so I was confident that I had avoided a similar disaster.

The aid stations were all well stocked with ice.  Although this was the hottest point in the day I was completely refreshed just by chugging the ice cold water and allowing it to spill out the sides of my bottle over my face, neck and shirt. 

The rest of the run went well.  It was hard, still very hard, but my attitude had completely reversed from my last run through this section of the course.  I made it up that big hill without stopping, although I did hesitate for a moment again at the top.

I wasn’t sure of the distance I had remaining.  I knew my Garmin was measuring the distance short due to the serpentine nature of the trail.  I estimated about two miles.  Still intentionally ignoring my average pace, I looked at the total time and tried to figure if I still had a shot at 11 hours.  It was close.  If I had estimated the distance correctly I could make it if I could maintain a 9:00 pace.  9:00 is something that would be easy under normal conditions, but I was exhausted and most of the rest of the course was uphill.  All I could do was give it 100% and see what happened.  I did manage to pass a few people on this stretch and I could feel myself running just a little taller every time that happened.

I finally reached the finish at 11 hours and 7 minutes.  Pretty close to what I estimated as a reasonable goal for the race, but 7 minutes late to qualify for Western States.  I’m OK with that though.  This was my first 50 miler.  Although I learned a lot, I know now that I need a lot more experience before I even think about attempting a 100 mile race.  I’m also pretty confident that I will be able to significantly improve my time in my next ultra using what I learned at Croom.

I know this was a long post, but not surprisingly I still have more to say.  Next time I’ll review how well some of my gear performed in the race.

Post Script

I wanted to extend a special thanks to Chris Goodreau for many of these photos.  It takes a frustratingly long time to take a photo with my cell phone.  Since I was aware that my pace was a little slower than I hoped, mine stayed in my pocket for most of the race.  Chris was also very patient with me over the past few months as I peppered him with questions every time I saw him.  I would not have finished this race without his help.

Note Chris' dirt goatee.  Some of us made it
through the race without doing a faceplant.

Monday, April 9, 2012

2012 Croom Fools Run – Part I

Who would have ever thought that bonking on a training run was the best thing that could have ever happened to me in training for the Croom Fools Run.  Since the start of the year I focused solely on mileage and built up to a fairly significant weekly base.  I was pleased with my progress.  My body was responding well. I was staying healthy and uninjured.  I was confident . . . over-confident.  

Then I bonked.  

Less than a month out from Croom on what should have been a routine four hour trail run, I bonked hard.  It was bad but fortunately I was only two miles from the end of the trail when it happened.

I was initially in denial and considered it a fluke.  Luckily, something in the back of my mind kept nagging at me.  There was an element missing from my training, something that if I didn’t address, would result in disaster.  So I read.  I googled.  I jumped into online forums.  I asked questions, lots of questions, of anyone I could find with experience (Thanks Chris and Don!).

What I ultimately discovered was that I was neglecting race nutrition.  I was taking in way too few calories to sustain an entire day of running.  I also learned about the delicate balance between hydration and electrolytes.  I realized I was experiencing an electrolyte deficiency that was just beginning to display symptoms at training distances of 25-30 miles that had I not corrected would have spelled disaster in the race (something I witnessed personally at Mile 43).

I stumbled on an amazing resource for ultra runners – an online community called Trail Runner Nation.  Among other things they have podcasts featuring interviews with experienced ultra runners and experts on subjects like coaching and nutrition for endurance athletes.  I discovered products like Succeed S-Caps (electrolyte pills) and Hammer’s Perpetuem.   I cannot sing the praises enough of both of these products.

In my last few weeks of training I was able to test and tweak my caloric and electrolyte intake.  I nearly doubled the amount of calories I was taking in per hour.  I shunned Gatorade and Gels in favor of a miracle pill that I popped just once or twice an hour.  Bonking was the best thing that could have happened to me and these changes paid off – big time. 

I successfully completed the Croom Fools Run 50 Mile Ultra on Saturday with a time of 11:07:01.

The course is a 15 mile loop hiking trail through the CroomWildlife Management Area, part of the Withlacoochee State Forest in Brooksville, FL.  The 50 mile race included a 5 mile starter loop and 3 full loops around the hiking trail.

Here are the stats:

Race Stats
Starters:           77
Men:                52
Women:           25
Finishers:         61
Finisher ratio:  79%
(Interestingly out of 16 runners that dropped, only one was a woman)

My Stats:
Time:   11:07:01
Pace:    13:20
Overall Place:  39th
Gender Place:  24th
Age Group:     10th

Once again a mid-packer.  Out of 77 starters I practically had the median time.  Am I happy with that?  For my first 50 miler to finish middle of the pack when the pack consisted of athletes capable of running 50 miles – HELL YEAH!

Lap Breakdown

What I like about this chart is that although I slowed down with each loop, I improved significantly relative to the field – from 45th after the 5 mile starter loop to 20th for the final 15 miles.

I have so much to say about this race that I know it will turn into a book if I don’t restrain myself.    Suffice it to say for now that the race was an awesome experience.  From the organizer to the volunteers to the route itself.   I’ll post a complete blow by blow in the next few days.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


It was a rough week last week.  Not my running.  My training went very well.  My body feels good . . . strong . . . prepared.

It was rough because a local runner was shot and killed during a robbery at the restaurant he managed.

It was rough because an ultra-runner I idolized died while on a trail run.

It was rough because another friend was diagnosed with cancer.  This disease has touched way too many people in my life.

Life is short.  It can end in an instant during an act of workplace violence, you can battle a vicious disease, or you can die suddenly while doing an activity you do and love every day.

It is precisely because life is short that you should spend as much time as possible with the ones you love, and as much time as possible doing things that give you joy and a sense of fulfillment.

Lately I seem to struggle with the loved ones part so for now I’m focusing on the other.

I keep getting asked why I’m interested in ultra-marathons, why I would put myself through something so difficult and dangerous.

I love running and especially trail running.  It gives me a sense of peace, joy and fulfillment.  It doesn’t hurt that it also keeps me fit and healthy.

Once you reach a level of endurance that enables you to run for hours, distance becomes irrelevant.  The challenge is no longer physical, the challenge is finding the mental fortitude required and simply keeping your body fueled and hydrated well enough to continue that level of activity for long periods of time.  Most people look at an ultra marathon and find the numbers 50 or 100 intimidating and dangerous.  I think of them as an opportunity to spend an entire day doing something I absolutely love to do and if I perform well, I will be rewarded with a finish line at the end.

Most of my friends like to spend their weekends on the couch in front of the tv, or at a sports bar, drinking beer and eating wings and chips.  I like to go out and spend a few hours running, usually with friends, sometimes solo.  In the long run, which of those activities do you think is really the more dangerous?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Inspired by Caballo Blanco

Micah True, also known as Caballo Blanco, passed away last week while on a 12 mile trail run in the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico.  Micah True's story was featured in the book Born to Run but if you aren't familiar with him or his work with the Tarahumara in Mexico's Copper Canyon, you can read a great interview of him here.  (Thanks Brad for the great link) 

The cause of death is still unknown and autopsy results should be disclosed in the next few days.  He was found reclining by the side of a stream with his feet soaking in the cool water.  The image sounds peaceful but I found it eerily reminiscent of this photo I took just four months ago. 

It’s the kind of thing I do on virtually every trail run, take the time to stop and savor my surroundings – a beautiful vista, the sound of the wind through the trees or the sensation of cool water on my feet.

I’m a little surprised at myself by how much I have been touched by his death.  Many friends have been sending me news links about it.  I think part of it is because I do so much solo trail running, but you can easily see how inspired I was by his story just by looking at a graph of my monthly mileage.

Click to enlarge

It was a pivotal moment in my life and I know that I would not have accomplished the things I have over the past two and a half years without that spark of inspiration.  I think its rare in life that such a moment can be so dramatically illustrated.

“I just want to live a healthy life, live and love.  To do what I can with whatever I am blessed with.  I have no material goals of being wealthy.  I feel I am already wealthy in the ways I care about.”
   Micah True