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.)

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