Monday, January 27, 2014

Fun Times in Cold January

Tearing down from one tough descent at the "Frozen Snot Trail Race"

What has occurred to me lately is that if I were deployed this season down to my usual field camp in Antarctica (like I have been for the past 5 years), I'd already be either home by now, or on my way.  It's simply astounding how fast the past two months have gone while at home instead of working down in the field.  The two months I spend in Antarctica seem to play out in slow motion while I'm down there. This year though, it seems I was only just at a meeting in San Francisco last week (which was really in early December!).

While home I've tried to keep my running up as best as I can with what little time I have.  Normally down on the ice I would have dropped my running load down to a bare minimum.  I figured it was high time that I got out and did some races in the winter, now that I was home for it.

A few weeks ago I wrote about my experience out at the Resolution Challenge.  I ran alongside Jeff Smucker and was able to pound out 23 miles in 3 hours on a fun and snowy course securing my first "win" of the 2014 season and only my second "win" even (Technically Jeff and I both won as we crossed the finish together).  Race-time temps hovered near 0F and I had a blast.

On an absolute and complete whim, I decided I wanted to do a January ultra, but couldn't find anything really local.  After a bit of searching, I stumbled across the Beast of Burden races up near Rochester NY.  I didn't really want to do a hundred, but it seemed like a nice fit.  I was going to be in the area anyway that weekend, so I signed up completely impulsively.  The race boasts a fast, flat, very runnable course....but the lake-effect snow and wind can be brutal.  I wanted to see how well I'd fare running the better part of a day in the cold.  How well would I manage my heat output?  My fueling?  My hydration?  The most I'd ever run in Antarctica was about 15 miles.  I went to the Beast with two goals:  Finish the race and go sub-20hr.  Back in November I had boasted how I managed to finally hit a sub 20-hour 100-mile PR during the NJ one day event.  While this was technically true, I didn't feel it was a real 100-mile PR because it was a timed event.  In my mind, it had to be a 100 mile event to PR for the 100 mile distance.

I drove up to the race start from where I was near the Finger Lakes region of NY, and mostly just chatted pre-race with some good ultra friends.  It was nice catching up with people.  I decided that my strategy would be to try to keep my heart-rate hovering around 145.....with my pace no faster than 8:30 miles.

The course was a 12.5 mile out-n-back repeated 4 times.  As the gun sounded I felt under-dressed, but as soon as we turned down the tow-path at mile 2, and the wind was behind us, I began roasting (despite temps in the low teens).  For the entire 12.5 miles, I ran a solid even 8:30 pace and made it to the turnaround quite spry.  I was feeling good, and was doing well on nutrition and the like.  After warming up for a few minutes, I turned and headed out for my first return leg and it was then that I was smacked with my first brutal reality:  Going the 12.5 miles into the wind was effin' miserable.  I flipped up my neck gaiter, popped in some hand-warmers, put my head down, and gutted it out for those 12.5 long miles.  At the mid-point aid station I made sure to sit in front of the jet-heater for a few minutes to let my hands warm up.   It was then though that I realized the delicate balance I was going to have to play all day.  The longer I stopped at any aid station, the lower my heart-rate got, and the colder I became upon setting out from the station....regardless of how long I sat in front of the heater.  I had to balance it so that I warmed up my extremities (fingers, toes, face) just enough in the heater, but didn't get too low of a heart-rate which would drop my core temp and make me shiver terribly upon setting out.   It was always tempting to stay seated in front of that Jet heater, but every time I did for too long, within minutes of leaving I was shivering miserably until my core warmed back up a few miles down the trail.  I got better at this throughout the day, but it was a decent learning curve.   I also found that I was eating more ravenously than usual...obviously due to the temps.  It was hard to stay well-fed.  I was always hungry.

Running down-wind...and happy!

Runners slogging along the tow-path

At the start of my second loop it finally set in that it was going to be a long day.  I just wanted to get through loops 2 and 3 as routinely as possible without issue....and for the most part I did.  I kept my pace even, and slogged out mile after mile until it began to get dark at the end of loop 2.  I popped on my headlamp and when I started loop 3, I knew it would be the longest, and the most difficult to get through.   The miles went by very slowly, but I tried to keep my focus on known smaller milestones along the way.  Little by little the loop was getting knocked out, despite an overall sense of ennui, and I was nearing the start of my last and 4th loop.  I was still going strong, feeling good, and quite thrilled with the fact that I had managed to run all 75 miles thus far.  Other than walking for a few short distances while fixing clothing or eating, I had not walked a single time in the event...just to walk.  

On the fourth loop though, this all changed.  When I started doing the finish math, I had been seriously eyeballing a sub 19hr finish.  I was quite certain if I maintained my pace and drive, I could do it.  On the outbound leg of the final loop I could feel that I was starting to fall off...and quickly.  Still I managed to make it to the turnaround at 87.5 still running and on pace.   On the final return leg though, during the wee hours of the morning, the wheels finally came off.  At mile 95 I had to stop to walk.  I had done so well all day with balancing my heart-rate, hydration, nutrition, and exertion-level....but somehow got it wrong by about 5-8 miles.  In the last 5 miles of the event I had a legendary crash.  I walked probably 3 of the last 5 miles and could barely even muster up a run near the finish line.  I lost over 30 minutes and 2 places in those last 5 miles.  I was on pace to finish about 18:55 and in 4th place before the crash, and afterward stumbled across the line in 19:36 and 6th place.  Still, I was ecstatic with my new sub 20 100-mile PR and a nice 6th overall place (5th men).  The best part was that I paced my self so well, that my legs were barely sore the next day, and I came away with no blisters or foot problems whatsoever.

All in all, considering I signed up for the event just a short time before race-day, I was thrilled with how well I knocked it out, and came away with a solid and much-needed 100-mile performance on my legs.
Adding another 100-mile buckle to my collection was a nice bonus too :-D

Moving On.

This past weekend I decided to run something a little shorter.  I had heard of an event that some of my local running friends had done last year while I was in Antarctica.  They had told me that it was quite ridiculous and featured some brutal climbs up some of PAs most wicked terrain.  I had always wished I could have done it.  I'm no stranger to training on the rocky and steep Appalachian Mountains in PA so I thought I'd look into doing it this year.  When I did a web search for it, I was super bummed to find out that I had missed the application deadline by a week.  It had closed!  Doh!

I emailed the race director and politely asked, "I know it's a long shot, but is there anyway I could still run the Frozen Snot Trail Run?".  He wrote back and said, "Someone just canceled!  You're IN!"


The race had a requirement of either micro-spikes, yak-trax, or "screw-shoes".  I had none of these, but decided rather than spending 70 bucks on spikes, that I'd try the simpler solution of hitting up the hardware store and buying some sheet metal hex screws.  I read a few "how-tos" online and promptly screwed 17 screws into the bottom of my older Cascadia's.  I went out for a test run along the bike path I was amazed at how extraordinarily effective the screws were at "biting" into the ice.  I was sold!

I casually looked over the race website on Friday night and it finally started setting in just how ridiculous the course was.  They had added a new climb this year so the course would feature over 5200 feet of climb in less than 14 miles miles.  In truth the first and last 1.5 miles was on a easy road, so really the 5200 feet of climb was almost entirely in about 11 miles.  The first climb, appropriately named, "The Beast", was about 1300 feet in about 1/2 mile.  This is exactly the same profile as Check-mate hill at the Barkley, except covered in snow, ice, and littered with boulders.  You had to go up all fours on this climb.  I was definitely not recovered yet from Beast of Burden, and this race completely and utterly kicked my ass.   HARD.  The climbs were tough, and I felt miserably out of shape.  The truth was, I wasn't out of shape....I just didn't have any umph in my leg muscles.  I had to fight out these climbs.

The race was the longest 14 miles I've done in quite a while.  I took me nearly 4 hours to finish the race, and I still managed to finish in 13th place out of over 100 runners.  On a good day, with not-so-tired legs, I likely would have finished top 10.  The course was almost entirely "off-trail" as well, with most routes being direct lines either up or down a mountain-side.  Very Barkley-esque.

The RD made it known that the point of this course was to feature the most elevation gain over the shortest distance of ANY event in PA.  He succeeded.  The very few places on the course that were "flat", were littered with small rocks and boulders and nearly impossible to run fast on anyway.  The only places where you could really tune out and run, were on the road stretch at the beginning and end. Even the downhills were so steep and slippery, that you had to be super careful not to wipe out.  I walked, glissaded, butt-slid, and toppled down many descents.  My arms and shoulders are still very sore from grabbing all the trees and rocks to help stop my momentum.  I shredded my shorts from all the butt-slides, tore open my good gloves, and lost all but 9 of the screws in my shoes during the race.

Again...I say....this race was brutal.  Major props to the RD for putting this together.  It lived up to its reputation.  I found out later that the RD also puts on the Mega-transect race later in the year, but it has unfortunately already sold out.

I fell fairly far behind in the final few miles of the race, but managed to recover quickly on the last descent passing several folks.   When I hit the road section with 1.5 miles to go, I was so ecstatic to be off the rocky trails and unscathed, that I literally ran 7:30 min/mile pace back to the finish, moving up even a few more positions in the field of runners.  I ended up finishing 13th overall with 2nd-12th being not that far in front of me.  The 1st place winner I am convinced was not human, as he somehow managed to finish 50 minutes ahead of the 2nd place finisher.  I have no idea how he physically went that fast on a course like that, but I am in awe regardless!  Major congrats to Matt Lipsey for that ridiculous time.

That's it for now.

hike on and happy trails everyone,


my screw shoes

The horrific profile

About half-way...already exhausted

One of the easier climbs

At the base of the "Beast" before the boulder scrambling

Looking up the "Beast".  Pretty much a vertical boulder scramble
(photo: k. simin.)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

First Race of 2014

Being home this early in January has allowed me the opportunity to get some more running in than I normally would down in Antarctica.  This past Saturday was the inaugural "Resolution Challenge" In R.B. Winter State Park (Central PA), about an hour drive from my apartment in State College.  The temps for race morning were forecasted to be hovering around 0F and we were warned the course would be snowy and possibly icy.  

The race itself had a rather peculiar format, which is what drew me to it in the first place.  The course was 1.6 mile loop around the park, half trail, half paved....all snow covered.  There were officially two events happening simultaneously on the same course.  

One event was essentially a timed 3-hour event.  Finish as many loops as possible, before time runs out.  The one exception to the traditional format though, was that as long as any time remained, you were allowed to start another loop.  In other words, even though there was a 3-hour time limit, you could finish 15 minutes over if you started at loop at 2hrs and 59 minutes.

The 2nd event had a similar format to Laz's Backyard Ultra, but with a twist.  Officially it was titled a "Last Man Standing" and it started with everyone having exactly 21 minutes to finish a lap.  Then each successive lap, the finishing time was lowered by 1 minute.  As long as you made it to the finish before time ran out, you could go out on the next loop.  But, if you finished with very little time to spare, you would not have any time to really rest, eat, or use the you had to manage your time wisely. 

Initially, I was very intrigued with the Last Man Standing race, and nearly everyone from my local running club was participating in that event.  In the end though, I decided it was more important for me to simply get in a nice tempo'd long run and see how fast I could go with the loops.  I opted for the standard 3-hour loop event.   Thankfully, so did one other member of my local running group, and we ended up pacing off of each other for the entire 3 hours.

The loops

Both races started at 9:00 am and being in the standard-loop race, I jumped out quickly with the lead group.  The Last Man Standing racers had 21 minutes for their first lap, and so many of them were just jogging so that they didn't expend too much energy early on.  The loop starts with about 0.7-miles of nice trail.  It was entirely snow-covered, but all very runable.  I did not have any yak-tracks or spikes of any kind on, and never had any trouble with footing or slipping.  At the 0.7-mark, the trail dumps out onto a paved 0.7-mile stretch.  This bit was definitely runable and where I would usually make up most of my time on each loop.  At the very end of the road stretch, there was a small 0.2-mile bit of trail again into the finish-line chute where the official timer was.  There was only about 100 feet of climb total per loop so it made for relatively smooth running (with the exception of the poor footing in a few icy spots).  The end of the road stretch had a nice downhill that made for some fun and fast running too.

Early on in a loop on the trail.

For the first few loops I just sort of did my own thing,  I wasn't entirely sure how many were in front of me, but from what I could tell there were at least of whom I recognized as Jeff, the other runner from my local running group.  I normally can't keep up with Jeff, so I wasn't trying too hard to keep his pace, as I knew it would likely backfire.  Additionally, he was running with another fast guy and it looked like the two of them had a nice pace going.  So, I just sort of put my head down and tried to enjoy the very quiet and calm morning.  Despite there being over 60 runners, it never seemed crowded on the 1.6-mile loop.  My particular race was usually out of phase with the Last Man runners, so I generally didn't see them too much.  What this meant was I got to really take in a beautiful and crisp January day....and my first race of 2014!

Finishing an early lap

As the loops progressed, I noticed that I was keeping even with Jeff and that the other runner with him had fallen away.  I decided with over half of the race in the books, I would try to just keep up with Jeff as long as I could...just to see how long I would last.  We ran several loops together, sometimes I'd stop for a drink and he'd get a bit ahead, and other times I'd leave the loop ahead.  By the end of the loop though, we were usually running beside each other chatting about something.

Catching back up to Jeff at the finish of an early loop

With 56 minutes remaining in the race, and just setting out on loop 10, I realized that if I could push hard for 4 loops, I might be able to just squeeze in under 3 hours and do a 5th loop.  I told Jeff of my intentions and stepped on the gas a little.  The loops were tiring and I went from averaging 9 min/miles to closer to 8.  In the sloppy snow this was a rather quick pace, even with the paved section.  My heart-rate ran near 160 for all four loops, but as we were rounding the corner ready to finish loop 13, we saw that the time was 2hrs and 58 minutes!  As we crossed the line, the timer told us we could still do another lap.  Jeff and I agreed not only to run it slow...a sort-of victory lap, but, to finish together.

So in 3hrs 13 minutes we crossed the line together after 14 consecutive loops, still smiling and having fun (Although pretty darn exhausted and depleted).  Those previous 4 loops definitely kicked my ass, but if felt damn good to push hard and work myself at a fun race like this.  We both finished in 1st place and I got my first (co)-victory of 2014, and only my 2nd race win ever!  It really was a fun time at this event, and I absolutely would love to do it next year if I'm still around.  

Finishing the final loop 14 with Jeff

In the Last Man Standing race, it was a battle.  Several men and women made it down to sub 7min/mile pace.  In the end, 3 men made it through the 11 minute loop and all failed on the 10 minute loop (which was about 6 min/mile pace).  They had run only a couple loops less than Jeff and I had...but ran many of them way faster.  Several folks from my local running group placed in that event as well, including the top two women.  It truly was an outstanding day and a wonderful event.  Nothing but praises from all that attended.  The after-race hot soup was pretty darn fantastic too!

Avg pace and avg heart-rate clear shows the last few miles were tough

In the end, my watch clocked 22.8 miles total including a bit of walking around for food after one of the loops.

Here's the link to the Garmin mumbo jumbo:
and the link for the detailed split mumbo jumbo:

The next day (Sunday), I met Jeff again for another 14 lovely and easy miles on the roads of Rothrock State Forest.  It's going to be a fun Winter of running I think...

hike on friends!