Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Friday, June 16, 2017

2017 Bryce Canyon 100-Miler

"Eternity is a long time, especially toward the end." -- Woody Allen (And me, as the race wore on...)

When I recapped my experience at the Black Mountain Monster 12-Hour, I noted that it left me somewhat nervous about a 100-miler with 18,500' of climb and roughly the same descent. Well, the week leading up to Bryce Canyon, the forecast was showing temperatures in the mid-80s and while that was certainly lower Western States had been in 2014, it was at least twelve degrees above what I had expected. The heat would certainly play a factor in how my day went, but it also forced me to adopt a "smarter" strategy than I've used in the past, if I could ever claim to have had a "strategy."

The 2017 Bryce Canyon 100-miler would be unique for me in a lot of ways. I've never tried to tackle a race of this distance at basically the tail end of a vacation. We flew into Salt Lake City on Sunday and visited Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon National Parks before race day, making our way east to west across the southern side of Utah. While we didn't tackle any long trails, we spent a lot of time on hikes, walking around, and just being outside. One positive outcome of this was a gradual acclimation to the 7500'-9500' elevation I'd have throughout race day as each Park lay at a slightly higher elevation than the prior. Would all this exploration come back to bite me on race day? I hoped not, but felt that if it did, I wouldn't be upset because ultimately the trip was about seeing the Parks and I wasn't going to miss that just to save up energy for the race.

Knowing that late-race eating has always been an issue for me, I decided that I would take Lee's advice and give the Tailwind product a shot. It promises no "gut-bombs" and nutrition/elecrolytes to carry you through a long race. They say it's all you need--no gels, food, etc..., but I wasn't sure if that would work, so I also brought some trail and peanut butter bars, along with Huma gels and S-caps, in case I needed extra electrolytes. As usual, I had my reliable Mountain Hardware pack from Western States, two Salomon soft flask water bottles, and on my feet were my Salomon Speedcross 3s that had served me well in many long runs. Dennis had told me there was a lot of sand on the course and I felt that with their big lugs, these shoes might have decent traction in sand since they did in mud. Plus, they are comfortable and don't come untied. Just in case I was wrong, my Brooks Cascadias were in the bag Paul and Rob (who were crewing me the second half of the race) would have at the turnaround.

ace morning was fairly cool, light jacket weather if you're just standing around. After Rob and Paul dropped me off in Bryce Canyon City, I hopped on the 5:20 a.m. shuttle for the short ride to the start area. There, I saw pop-up porta-jons for the first time--apologies for not taking a picture. From what I could see at a distance, they looked a bit like tall, narrow tents with a toilet (or bucket?) inside. At the start, I finally found Doug Thompson, who was also participating in the 100 and, shortly after finding him, Paul and Rob showed up, having jumped on the last shuttle, when spectators were allowed. The shuttles were the same buses used by the National Parks Service inside Bryce Canyon National Park. The race itself runs outside the Park border, on the western side. It has, as you'll see in later pictures, some of the features of the Park, but is more of a recreation area.

Some colorful hoodoos early in the race.
After the national anthem, runners lined up at the start and at 6:00 a.m., we were off. It was a dirt road for a while, allowing runners to spread out, before becoming single track trail. Not having a 100-miler "pace," and certainly going out too fast, I found myself not terribly far back from the lead pack early on. One guy was noticeably ahead in the early miles and I had to wonder if he was that good or just that confident in his abilities. I really did try to focus on taking it easy early on in this race, while still pushing a little during the early miles since it was still cool. The coolness had disappeared within the first hour, though, and I could readily distinguish between heat due to exertion and heat in the environment. Well before reaching the first aid station at mile 10.5, I had gone through both of my 17 ounce water bottles. At this aid station, I began taking Tailwind in one bottle and straight water in the other, an arrangement I would continue at every subsequent aid station. I think that I was getting roughly 150 calories of Tailwind in a bottle. Since this was the first time I had tried it, I'll say that it had a slight fruit taste--I'm not sure if each aid station had the same flavor--but far from the over-sweetness of something like Gatorade. Whether it would sit with me over the many miles that lay ahead was a concern, but I was optimistic that all the good reviews I had read meant that it actually delivers on its promise.

Aid Station One -- Arrived at 7:48 a.m.
The long gap between aid stations early on was noticeable as I continued to run out of water/Tailwind before reaching the next station. On several occasions, after the volunteer filled up my water bottle, I'd drink it dry on the spot and then refill it. At this point, I'll note (because this is not always the case) that the plain water actually tasted good, without the chlorine taste you find in the water at some races.

When I was at roughly mile 20, or shortly after the second aid station, I texted Leslie that I was doing ok and what mile I was on. I can look back and see that I took a picture of what I believe is the second (mile 19) aid station at 9:29 a.m. or about 3.5 hours into the race. The coolness of the day had passed so there'd be no more of that pace (almost 5.5 mph) the rest of the race. As you can see from the profile chart below, it was about to get pretty rough.

There was a nine mile gap between the second and third aid stations and the day was heating up. I could carry 34 ounces of fluid and had already run out before reaching either of the prior two aid stations so weighing all of that, I tried to conserve both my water and my energy. Slowing down a bit did have an impact on my time, as I rolled into the mile 28 aid station at about 12:10 p.m. That was 6:10 for the first 28 miles and 2:40 for the last nine miles, which was a 3.3 mph pace. That actually brought me back down to a more realistic overall pace for my 100-miler since my goal was 28 hours. While this section wore on me, I didn't get into trouble.

The desert-like scenery only made it feel hotter.
Now that it was noon, I decided that I would walk almost exclusively the rest of the day--until the sun dropped below the tree or mountain-line. There was very little shade and very few creek crossings to soak my hat in. It was a little discouraging to be passed but I was able to keep my ego in check and stick with my plan, knowing that to start running would quickly overheat me and likely end my day. I told myself that a 4 mph walk wouldn't cost me that much compared to a 5-6 mph jog. And, truthfully, the number of people passing me wasn't THAT bad considering how much I was walking. I would notice that many of those that passed me spent a lot longer in the aid stations than I did because often that's where I'd catch back up to them. Except for the stations where my crew met me later in the race, I only stopped to refill my bottles, so I probably spent only 1-2 minutes at each aid station.

I reached the Straight Canyon aid station about 3:38 p.m. so mile 41 came 9:38 into the race. That was actually way ahead of my 28 hour goal pace even though it seemed like time was rapidly slipping away.

Cliffs towered over me as I neared the turnaround.
Another 5.5 miles and some very tough climbing later, I reached Pink Cliffs at mile 46.5. The previous night, I head decided that this course was a lot like Bighorn and I reached that turnaround in eleven hours (though it was at mile 48 instead of 51.5 here) so I told them I might reach the turnaround about 5:00 or maybe 6:00. It was now 5:09 p.m., the earliest time my crew thought they'd be meeting me at the turnaround. I didn't have a good way to let them know where I was because my texts weren't getting through consistently. My pace and aid station spreadsheet I gave them indicated I'd be at the turnaround between 7:00 and 8:00, though, so I hoped my earlier text that showed a faster pace didn't throw them off and make them get there too early, having to sit around and wait for me.

The next stretch I was able to run a little because it got shady and had a stretch of downhill dirt road. I had started seeing the leaders coming back toward me slightly before the last aid station, but I honestly was surprised I hadn't seen them sooner than that. Once the trail left the dirt road, it still trended downhill but we kept hitting these huge rock culverts/washes that you really couldn't run through. They were on side slopes and several feet deep and 6-12' across. For some, it was hard to figure out where best to cross. I was now encountering some of the runners I'd been near earlier in the race and I was also in the shade. Though these few miles really dragged out, I was in good spirits knowing that the turnaround was near. After maybe eight or so culverts, I finally emerged into the clearing of Crawford Pass, mile 51.5 and the turnaround.

At the turnaround. Just over halfway done.
I was surprised (but not completely) to see Leslie there with Rob and Paul. I had thought she might come though she never indicated she planned to do so. Later, Paul told me that she flipped back and forth about coming before ultimately deciding to do so. My main concern was that she wouldn't get much/any sleep by doing this, just like she hadn't when she crewed me at Western States with Donna. The turnaround was possibly my longest aid station stop because I wiped off some trail dust with a wet towel and then left it around my neck for a little bit while Rob refilled my bottles. I asked about Eric because I knew he had come with Doug to pace him from miles 50 to 62 before doing the half-marathon the following day. I then learned that Doug had to drop around mile 28 from dehydration. Doug later told me that he had a volunteer refill his Camelbak at an aid station and once out on the trail realized they had barely filled it so he had a long stretch with no water. I hated to hear Doug had to drop, especially since he told me at the start that the following day was his 50th birthday. As for myself, I was finally a bit optimistic. It was later in the day and while the temperature might not have dropped a lot, there was more shade and that easily made a ten degree difference, if not more.

So, thanking my crew, I hurried off on the return trip. It would be about twelve miles before I would see them again. I laughed to myself almost every time I went through one of the culverts because many of them were filled with millions (I'm not sure I am exaggerating) of nice rocks that Leslie would have filled her pockets with. The climb out of the turnaround was pretty steep, once I cleared the single track. The dirt road I had come down earlier was too much for me to bother trying to run so I just power hiked. I must have done well because I caught the fourth place female at the top and she thought I had sprinted up it to catch up to her.

I stayed close to her and her co-runner and was actually too close at one point. We were on a wide section of trail and they were maybe 50' ahead. I looked up and thought to myself, she's using the bathroom behind a log, right by the trail. I slammed on my brakes and instead of turning around, I just put my hands on my knees and looked at the ground. Moments later, a concerned voice from ahead asked if I was ok. I looked up (she was now back on the trail) and told her what I thought she was doing. She said she was and "thanks for being courteous." I laughed because it just seemed to be a funny thing to say. Shortly after that, I caught up to them and learned her name was Tonya and his was Joe. We talked about the usual things like where everyone was from, etc... For some reason, she thought my accent was Irish, I blamed it on fatigue and trail dust. Knowing she was in fourth place and not terribly far behind, I asked if she was going to make a push to catch third. She said that she wasn't trying to place in this race and that they were going to take a 30 minute break at the next aid station, even though they both seemed to be running strong. They invited me to hang out with them there but I told them I had a crew waiting and that I don't do well with coming to a complete stop.

At 9450', Pink Cliffs was the highest point on the course and we were dropping 1100' to our next aid station 5.5 miles later, so it was obviously a pretty good, but mostly steady and runnable, descent. The descent and the company enabled me to arrive about 30 minutes before my crew expected me at the Straight Canyon aid station. I made it to the 100K point just before needing a headlamp. I think Tonya had said it was about 9:00 p.m. So, it was after official sunset, but not yet dark. I was technically still well ahead of a 26 hour pace, but the night, fatigue, and steep climbs would conspire to significantly slow me down going forward.

Representing TRU with a new shirt for the night shift.
After finding my crew, I swapped out my sweaty shirt for a dry one and grabbed my Grindstone finishers jacket (which is almost like a shirt.) It's very lightweight and I was a little worried that it wouldn't be enough with lows forecast in the 40s, but I did have an emergency hand warmer in my pack if it got too cold. I could shake it up and let it rest against my back to keep me warm. I figured, though, that if I was moving, the temperatures wouldn't be an issue.

I headed away from the aid station with the daylight rapidly vanishing, but still carrying, rather than wearing, my headlamp for as long as I could. It was a longer dirt road than I recalled and even though it was fairly flat, I was just walking it. It did worry me somewhat to be walking a runnable section because I didn't want to fall into that trap where I walk so much, I never start running again. After what felt like a mile or so, we turned off onto trail and I fired up my headlamp.

In the dark, the miles blur together. I had twenty two miles and two aid stations between me and the next time I'd see my crew. There was a lot of climbing involved and some sketchy footing where the loose rock trail slid off down steep embankments. Though I had been on this same trail just hours earlier, it seemed foreign to me now. Every now and then, while seemingly being the only person for miles, I wondered about mountain lions stalking me, and I really wondered about it when I smelled something very dead nearby in the darkness. But, mostly I was trying to catch a glimpse of the stars as the elevation, low humidity, and absence of light pollution made for excellent stargazing. The cool temperatures forecast didn't seem to have set in as throughout the night, I would be constantly putting my jacket on and off as the temperature fluctuated wildly. I don't think it was just my body temperature and it didn't seem to be tied to elevation. It almost seemed random. This wouldn't have been a big deal but it meant also removing my pack every time I took the jacket on or off.

It's probably fair to say that, outside of aid stations, I probably encountered only about five runners during the twenty two miles and seven hours I was out there "alone." It's hard to tell because sometimes a runner might be sitting down at the aid station and I just don't notice them. I had no idea of my place, but I did know that I didn't want to have a ton of people pass me like in the latter miles of Grindstone. I certainly felt better at this point in the race than I did at Grindstone and because I had eaten very little, I have to give a lot of credit to the Tailwind product. It seemed to be keeping me together.

Until it didn't.

Somewhere around mile 70-72, I found myself getting lightheaded and tired. It was probably close to midnight, around 9000' in elevation, and I had no one to talk to keep my brain active. I don't know that it felt like a bonk as much as just feeling sleepy. I decided to adopt Doug Blackford's strategy and every so often, I'd sit on a downed tree and just gather myself. At one point, it got so bad, I actually laid down right by the path and closed my eyes for a few minutes. I told myself that once I reached mile 84, Paul would be joining me and talking with him would help fight off the fatigue and then (if it didn't happen before mile 84,) the sun would be up and that would certainly drive off "The Sandman."

So I trudged on as best I could. I didn't trust my head enough to keep me balanced if I tried to run, so I held it to a fast walk unless the surface was ideal, with room for error if I ran a little wobbly. I honestly think that despite being on my feet, I dozed off for a second or two every so often during this stretch. Eventually, I imagine somewhere around 4:00 a.m., I made it to Proctor Canyon and my crew.

I didn't really need anything out of the car, so I waited for Paul to get ready and once he was, we headed out. Having sat around all evening, he had to run ahead some to warm up and I just walked as fast as I could behind him. There was a net downhill over the 8.5 miles to the next aid station and I let him pull me into running a few times. It wasn't a lot, but enough to pick up the pace from what I had been doing. I think I was about 30 minutes ahead of a 28 hour pace at the last aid station, but I didn't actually know that at the time.

Paul got to see some of the better scenery on the course by running this last stretch. Most of the conversation was small talk. He told me what they had done while I ran my first 50 and I told him funny things that had happened along the trail, including the guy who was listening to an audiobook while running. I told him I didn't have the mental capacity for intellectual discussion so we kept it light. No philosophy. 8.5 miles is long when you aren't tired and very long when you are. I think it took us 2.5 hours to get to the final aid station and it was a very quick stop. "Just" 7.5 to go after that. There were a couple guys we caught up to at this aid station who we'd see off and on the rest of the race. I really wanted to beat them (just as a personal motivation, not any grudge) but they seemed to be moving along pretty well.

We knew there was a major climb shortly after the aid station and we thought we'd found it leading up out of a dry creek bed/wash area. We probably had, but it had several "false summits" before we finally made it to what had to be the last (8250') peak you can see on the profile chart above. This was a fairly runnable section of trail, coming off that peak, and we even encountered a few mountain bikers out for a Saturday morning ride. The tough climb made me feel like I had knocked out more of the last 7.5 miles than I had and the next miles were incredibly long, even though I was able to jog some. I soon decided that we were not going back the way I had run out in the morning (we were, I was wrong) as we were running in and out of "fingers" along a mountainside. While it wasn't very steep and was slowly descending, I got discouraged because I didn't know how many of these there were. Three went by, four, five, six, and there seemed to be no end. It wasn't until maybe we had traversed eight of these mini-canyons that I saw a dirt road and kiosk ahead. We emerged onto the road and just kept following the pink flags, optimistic that the finish surely couldn't be far. I couldn't see any sign of it ahead but Paul and I were now in a "sprint" to keep the guy behind me from catching up. I would see him closing in when we'd make a turn on one of the "fingers" earlier and though I didn't truly care if I was ahead of him or behind him, I wanted to finish strong and he was going to have to play the villain for just a little bit.

Showing my bib to be sure I get credit.
We finally passed a lady walking up the road and Paul asked how far the finish was. She replied, "about a quarter mile." The pace quickened. I glanced behind. No sign of my "nemesis" but the road is curvy so he could easily be close by and hidden by brush. After about a minute, we passed another lady and Paul asked her the same question. "About a mile," she replied. So, either we were going the wrong way or these two had vastly different internal GPSs. I was tired, but fired up to stay ahead of my pursuer (not even knowing if he was running and trying to catch me) so we pressed on at a decent pace. Finally, I could see Leslie and Susan outside the van, maybe 100 yards ahead. Since there was a small crowd at the finish, we didn't slow the pace, as if to say "we had so much in reserve, we could have done another fifty miles." Though once I crossed the mat, another 50 feet sounded like too much. 

The buckle I selected.
I actually felt better at that moment than I have after any other 100 miler. I had no stomach issues, no leg pain, and little to no dehydration. I was tired, but not beaten. We drifted over to the timing tent and looked down at a display of maybe fifty belt buckle finisher awards. Each of the finisher's buckles was unique and that made picking one very difficult, especially having just finished. I looked through them several times and got input from Leslie and finally settled on one that seemed appropriate. It had some wood fragments or feathers in it (or something) that loosely resembled a landscape.

My finish time was 27:49:11, so very close to what I had figured might happen. A cooler day might have brought a little better time, but I was happy. Perhaps the best news was that the rental house owner said that we could delay checkout until noon when originally we had to be out by 10:00. So, being that it was just now about 10:00 a.m., there was time to go back and get cleaned up rather than head straight to Zion unwashed. I thanked the race officials and explained why we were leaving so soon and we piled into the van to get back to the house. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than a cold Fresca and a not-too-hot shower.

In the car, Rob told me he had looked at the runner check sheet at the turnaround and I was around 42nd place. At the finish, I was 28th. I later learned that the drop rate was almost 40% and I had to believe that most of that was heat related. I really felt good that I not only finished but was able to move forward in place over the last half of the race. As good as that felt, however, it wasn't half as good as it felt to be hiking up the Virgin River in Zion National Park the next day as we knocked off a bucket list item and hiked in The Narrows.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

2017 Black Mountain Monster 12-Hour

The Black Mountain Monster is a 6/12/24 hour Ultra run on a certified 5K wooded loop between the railroad tracks and I-40 in Black Mountain. Most or all of the course seems to be on Montreat College's property as it runs by their track and field facilities and through their outdoor adventure (ropes, rock walls, etc...) areas. Perhaps they even use this 5K route for their cross country meets. I originally registered for the 24-hour event last November, thinking it would be good training if I got into UTMB in 2017. Mont Blanc would be over three months after the 24-hour run and I'd have plenty of time to recover. When I was again unsuccessful in the UTMB lottery, I looked around at what I could run in 2017 to keep enough qualifying points to register for the 2018 running of Mont Blanc and settled on Bryce Canyon, which some friends had run a few years back. I soon realized that Bryce Canyon's mid-June race date probably wouldn't work well with my doing a 24-hour run roughly five weeks before, so the race director, Mike Guyer, was happy to let me drop down to the 12-hour run. Quite a few friends would be there and despite my concerns about having done fewer long runs than I'd hoped (only two over thirty miles this year,) I was nervously looking forward to gauging where I stood fitness-wise with Bryce just around the corner.

Ray and I had gone up a couple weeks before race day to check out the course but had a little trouble following the hand-drawn map and we weren't allowed on part of the trails because Montreat was using their ropes courses for a class. We were still able to get a decent feel for what to expect. There were a lot of turns and a few hills, but nothing too rough, and there was even about a half-mile stretch of paved greenway. I rode up with Lee the Friday evening before the race to help set up a tent. The main reason for going on Friday was to get a good spot for the tent and, with some advice from Mike, we did. We would run right by it before and after the timing mat each loop, giving us two chances to get whatever we needed for the next loop. We also picked up our shirts and the little oval BMM stickers, but with the race starting at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, we didn't really need to get them early as there was plenty of time on race day.

When race day rolled around, I realized that this would be one of the few races I didn't set an alarm for. Most races either have early morning starts or late afternoon/evening starts (like Grindstone or The Boogie.) Mid-morning is somewhat of an oddity in my race history. With it being about a 45 minute drive to Black Mountain, there was no real rush. I packed the car with my folding chair, two of Brandon's Tanawha Adventures (filled) 5-gallon water jugs, my race gear, and my post-race clothes and headed out around 7:45. The weather Ray and I previously experienced, temps in the mid 80s, was drastically different than what was promised for race day. The forecast was calling for some periods of rain and cool temperatures with an expected high in the upper 50s and so far it was correct. It's about a quarter-mile walk from the parking area to the race start so the BMM has a truck and a Gator transporting the runners' heavier gear. Ray pulled in right behind me and we headed over to the start to find Lee. Beyond the cooler temperatures, it was a much windier day than expected, and a number of people were having trouble with their tents--some didn't even have stakes to anchor them to the ground. There were probably at least twenty tents in the large, slightly sloping field. Those near the bottom of the field, like us, had slightly softer ground from all the water coming down the hill, but it wasn't too bad.

Starting at Tent City - Weather looks good--for now...
Roughly 150 runners were registered, spread somewhat evenly between the three events. Ray and I were both in the 12-hour and Lee was in the 24-hour, which I had prodded him to do only to then abandon him when I dropped down to the 12. With his first 100, the Yeti 100, coming up, he decided to remain in the 24 and had different goals that would help him prepare for that event. It was a chip-timed race and like at Jordan Lake, they put the start/finish chute in a short out-and-back. It's not a big deal during the race, but it makes for a very congested start. If any were made, I never heard the pre-race announcements as I stood amidst the crowd at the start, I just noticed everyone started running. Up the hill, across the mats, a sharp U-turn, and we were off. I knew this first lap would show me just how accurately Ray and I had followed the course during our preview and as it turned out, we weren't terribly off. The main area we messed up was not finding a section of single-track around mile 2.5, but I think we were pretty close on everything else.

It would be pretty boring to describe every loop, and honestly difficult because they tended to run together. The splits are at the end of this post and I'll try to just summarize the day.

A stretch of more manageable mud.
The off-and-on rain that was forecasted turned out to mostly be "on" to some degree. Combined with the rain the day before, the course had some muddy spots from the start. Those spots would get much worse as the day (and night) wore on and new areas, like the one pictured to the right, that were once pretty solid and dry would become problem muddy areas.

Before I realized the trail might be pretty muddy, I had planned to wear my Brooks Cascadias for the race, but (I think wisely) changed to my Salomon Speedcross 3s before the start. Not only did they handle the mud better in terms of traction, they kept some of the water out, even without gaiters. I didn't have any blister issues during or after the race and my feet mostly felt dry the entire time, though my Balega socks probably contributed to that.

They say that insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting a different result. I note that not in reference to this being a loop course, but to my once again having a meal the night before heavy in olive oil. I already have stomach/GI issues during long runs and the olive oil did a number on me. I certainly wasn't dehydrated, but made six porta-jon visits in the first 36 miles of the race (and seven for the entire race.) Even though it was cool and rainy, as a precaution against possible dehydration, I also took 3-4 S-caps over the course of the event.

If you scroll down to the lap splits, you'll note that every lap until the twelfth, was slower than the prior lap. Some of that was naturally slowing down, some was certainly the porta-jons and stopping to refill my water bottle, and some was the increasing amounts of mud and constantly changing the layers on my upper body. I would head out on a lap prepared for a strong rain and then the rain would quit and I'd be burning up--or vice versa. This continued until the rain finally let off for good around 7:00 p.m. and I changed into a dry shirt and light jacket that I would wear for the final three hours.

It's actually worse than it looks!
For most of the event, I ran alone, speaking to friends or co-runners only briefly in passing. With it being a relatively small loop, it was rare to go more than a minute without encountering another runner. I thought I had encountered just about everything in trail races but was proven wrong when one lady called me "babe" and "sweetheart" the two times I asked to pass as lapped her. It made me feel like I was in a diner, but was kind of funny.

Like so many long races before, I hit a bit of a wall between miles 30 and 40 and it shows in the splits as they were 3-5 minutes slower than my mile 31 split. This was a combination of everything--stomach issues, fatigue, and misery. At this point, I had already started doing the math of walking the rest of the 12 hours and began to seriously doubt my ability to finish 100 miles at Bryce Canyon next month and wondered if I should go ahead and drop down to the 50-miler. I knew that Bryce probably wouldn't be rainy and muddy, but it was going to be a lot hillier. I felt like my lack of training was really coming back to bite me now as I was past any distance I had gone in months and when I reached mile 40, I'd be past any distance I had run since Grindstone last October.

But around mile 40, a cloud was lifted (from me, not the sky--it was still raining) and things felt better. The mud was getting worse, but my body had seemingly self-corrected and while I wasn't about to run any more sub-30 minute loops, I could run/jog at a comfortable pace and hike the uphills. In a later e-mail, Bill would explain his theory for what happens to me between 30 and 40, but I won't get into it here as it's kind of scientific. My 14th lap dropped four minutes from the prior lap and though my lap times would again creep back up, I felt quite a bit better and knew that I could push through until the end.

I should mention that the timing tent is facing you as you cross the mats and make the U-turn. I didn't notice it at first, but after about 5-6 laps, I saw they had put up a large television screen that showed your lap split and place as you cross the mats. It showed that I was first in the 12-hour race. That surprised me quite a bit because I knew there were some guys ahead of me. So, I figured they must have been in the 24-hour race and tried to stay focused on just finishing. Unless I stopped and asked, or the second place runner happened to have crossed the mat within about the prior eight runners, I couldn't tell where they were in relation to me. Being more concerned about actually finishing the full 12 hours, I honestly didn't think about my place very much after that, though I did look at the screen on occasion to see if it showed the second place 12-hour participant. It never did until I started my final lap. It's hard to tell for certain, but only about twelve of the forty-one 12-hour starters went the "full" twelve hours, allowing for those who stopped because they didn't have time left to get a final mile or two after crossing the mat in the 11th hour.

After the six hour point had passed and that event ended, it was noticeable how many fewer runners were on the trails. Over the next few hours, more would stop for reasons ranging from "had enough" to reaching their mileage goal. I eventually figured out that Ray had pulled out and gone home (at the 50K point.) For most of the day, I felt like I did a pretty good job of eating something. With our table so close to the course and the start/finish aid station a little set back from the course, I tended to forget about the race-provided aid and just relied on what I brought. I was surprised to find out that the race had Huma gels, which are my current favorites. They are pretty expensive gels so to land them as a sponsor was a major coup for Mike.

It's hard to tell how muddy this part was!
After a time, like with all of these small loop courses, I was running from point to point and I had it pretty well memorized, even the best paths around the muddy sections (when there was any way around them.) One section had so much mud and water that about mid-race, they brought in pallets and mulch to lay across the trail. It would have been a really messy spot had they not done that. In the picture to the right, you can see how the water had accumulated. It was probably 8-12" deep in that area to the right of the pallets and underneath the pallets was either quicksand or mud. I was never quite sure which. While the pallets helped, I still slowed down on them because the spacing between some of the boards was just enough for my foot to fall into if I stepped wrong.

As I headed away from my table after my 17th lap, I heard someone back at the start/finish area yell my name. I was too far away to tell who it was and thought it was possible they were cheering for the guy running toward them. I later figured out that it was Brandon and Johnny. I had forgotten that Brandon said he'd be coming out at some point during the day. My 18th lap was my longest for two reasons. First, I made my final pit stop at the porta-jon, and second, I changed into my dry shirt and jacket and getting the wet clothes off took a while. I don't think the actual running part was any slower than the prior lap had been. Things were holding together pretty well. I was running and walking in the same spots on every lap on a consistent basis now.

When I headed out for my 19th lap, Johnny appeared and said he was going to run it with me. I warned him it wouldn't be very fast, but later realized how cold it was for those standing around out on the course and he might have been doing it in part to warm up. He and Brandon and Greg had come down to hang out and support some other runners. I don't know if it was the dry clothes or a fast, fresh runner pacing me, but the lap with Johnny went pretty quickly. Of course, the distraction of someone new to talk to certainly helped. The next (20th) lap I did alone and knew upon starting it that I had time to reach my goal of getting a 100K. It went a little slower than the lap with Johnny had, even though I walked the same spots as I had been. I believe part or all of this dropoff was because the sun had set and I was now running with a headlamp.

Brandon joined me for what would be my final lap. I had about 53 minutes left so obviously I couldn't get in two laps. Partial laps count at the 1, 2, and 3 mile marker so if I really felt good, I could continue to one of those points with any remaining time, but I didn't think it likely that I'd try. During our lap, Brandon told me about some more races that he's planning and we talked about other things that have since slipped my mind. Like with Johnny, the lap passed a bit quicker with someone accompanying me. Not necessarily on the clock, but it felt faster.

Brandon split off as I headed up and crossed the mat for my 21st lap. At about the 2.5 mile point of that lap, I had told him I was feeling a bonk coming on and it stayed with me until I reached the mats. I had 14 minutes left in the 12 hours and probably could have made it to the one mile point, but just didn't feel like going out there and then having to come back. Plus, to my surprise, Paul had shown up to help me pack my stuff and get it back to the car. 20 laps, or a 100K was my primary goal aside from just surviving. 21 laps was a secondary goal for only one reason: I got 21 laps at Jordan Lake 12-hour last year. That was a smaller loop, but I guess a part of me liked the idea of getting the same number of laps in.

I got a pottery medallion for the win though it didn't feel quite right given that at least a couple of the 24-hour guys were ahead of me and got more miles in their first 12-hours than I did. But the biggest thing I took away was the reminder that there are low points you have to get through and just because you're struggling early on doesn't mean you can't turn things around. The concern I had about Bryce Canyon is still there, but I just need to remember to take it easy and gut out the tough spots--and most importantly enjoy the views.

I wish I had taken a picture of my legs post-race, to show how thick the mud was caked on, but I did manage to get this of my shoes the next morning. The first picture is post-race. The second one shows how well they clean up with a hose and brush.


Lap            Lap Split         Race Time
  1                  25:55.64             00:25:55
  2                  26:09.56             00:52:05
  3                  26:43.72             01:18:48
  4                  26:57:12             01:45:46
  5                  27:16.29             02:13:02
  6                  28:03.43             02:41:05
  7                  30:06.97             03:11:02
  8                  33:09.36             03:44:22
  9                  33:15.00             04:17:37
10                  34:26.90             04:52:04
11                  38:13.49             05:30:17
12                  37:37.88             06:07:55
13                  39:24.85             06:47:20
14                  35:21.13             07:22:41
15                  35:52.93             07:58:34
16                  36:32.86             08:35:07
17                  37:33.12             09:12:40
18                  40:25.98             09:53:06
19                  36:45.56             10:29:51
20                  38:04.81             11:07:56
21                  38:03.66             11:46:00

Results from Wilson Timing.

Results on Ultrasignup (may have to click on "12-hour" on the page.)

Saturday, March 18, 2017

2017 Assault on Black Rock

I don't do many reports on shorter distance races for the simple fact that I don't enter many shorter distance races. I don't enter because they require you to run harder and that hurts. But Doug Thompson talked me into signing up for the Assault on Black Rock as part of our already schedule run that weekend. We were to run on the Black Mountain Crest Trail to familiarize him with the course before he competes in the 2017 Quest for the Crest. So, we planned to go over to the Bowlens Creek Trailhead after the Assault and run from what will be his first aid station as far as time allows and then come back to the car. But, we had to survive the race first.

The course profile. Serious stuff.
Assault on Black Rock is in Sylva, NC, a city I hadn't visited in probably thirty years. I wouldn't actually see much of the city as the race takes place at Pinnacle Park, just outside of Sylva. It's a seven mile run/hike/climb to the top of (I guess?) Black Rock Mountain. It gains 2,770' over the course, but the vast majority of that is in the first half of the race as shown in the adjacent profile graph (courtesy of the Assault on Black Rock Facebook page.)

I believe about 92 people registered for this year's race, which benefits the Clean Slate Coalition. Though I wasn't really concerned about trying to place high, I wondered who the fast runners might be. Last year, the race attracted a number of fast runners I knew, but of that group, only Johnny Zarbock had returned this year. I saw a few "Norm's Maggots" jerseys and given their reputation knew that they would be fast, and Sayrd, a friend from the Revolutions running club had shown up--though I knew he was coming. Actually, a lot of people looked fast so I knew I'd have to be very careful about not getting caught up in their pace early on. Since it takes me so long to get going, I have trouble starting on an immediate uphill, which is exactly what this race promised--with that hill lasting for the better part of 3.5 miles.

The race start/finish area was a simple affair, but that was fine, and with the on-and-off drizzle, they had built a fire in a firepit. The shirt was a nice color of green and the small fit me pretty well--though if it shrinks in the wash, I'll have to pass it on to Leslie or a niece/nephew. Doug and I made the 1.5 hour drive that morning and arrived in time to loosen up a little bit, with Sayrd accompanying us, on adjacent trails that weren't quite as steep. But the 9:00 start time came quickly and we soon found ourselves on the starting line.

The airhorn start sent us on our way up the double-track, rocky road bed. I really tried not to pay attention to those around me and their pace, but I did notice Johnny, in his NC state flag jersey, had quickly gotten well ahead, along with a number of other runners. There were also quite a few people right around me. I was probably on the outer edge of the top ten after the first half-mile or so and still just wanted to run steadily and not be afraid to take a quick walk if I absolutely had to. This was the first race in a long time that I didn't either have on a pack or carry a water bottle. There were water aid stations at miles 2 and 2.5, so I figured that would be fine--especially given the cool, misty morning.

It wasn't long before I, along with everyone around me, found myself fast-walking the hills. I was probably running more than I normally would have in the past, but there were some sections that really called for a walk. As we went up, the pack around me thinned out. I never looked back to see who was behind me, but sometimes I could hear a brief conversation and knew that I was far from alone. Surprisingly, I found myself gaining on Johnny on the walking stretches. In his defense, he'd run 43 miles already that week, so he probably was starting to feel some of that. When I caught up to him, I warned him not to bend over so much on the walking because he's cutting off his air. Whether he took the advice or not, I don't know because I slowly pulled away from him, figuring he'd catch me on the downhill, along with many others who were currently behind me.

At the first aid station, they asked if I wanted water and I said "sure." They handed me one of those little 6 or 8 oz. water bottles. While I understand the convenience of the bottle for the aid station volunteers, it did mean I'd be carrying whatever I didn't immediately drink for a while. I think I maintained a pretty good pace considering the climb and no one was running me down, though if they had, I couldn't have done much more to have stayed ahead of them. I finished off the water and dropped the empty bottle at the mile 2.5 aid station and noticed the trail had leveled off somewhat (refer to the profile above.) I was able to run a fairly decent pace on this stretch and tried to take advantage of it, knowing that a severe climb lay ahead.

Roughly a half-mile later, I made the left turn off the double-track onto the steep, muddy, single-track to the summit. This was a tough section of steep, muddy trail (climbed 650' in 1/3 mile) where I sometimes found myself grabbing trees to pull up. I kind of figured out what to expect from talking with Johnny at the start, so at least I was somewhat mentally prepared for the climb. I kept waiting to see the leaders come back toward me and the further I went, the more I began to wonder if they had gone up and down so fast that they had already gotten back to the point where the return course split off from the outbound route. That would have put them over a mile ahead after two and a half miles but it wasn't totally out of the question. Since I was down to a hike, I also wondered if I'd be passed in this stretch, but I couldn't imagine anyone running up it.

Finally, the lead runner was coming back toward me and said something to the effect of my not being far from the top. Shortly after seeing him, I reached a false summit where the route went up and down a ridge for a little bit. In this section, I saw the next two runners and made room for them to get by. There was slushy snow in places up here and at 5800' it was a bit cooler and breezier than it had been on lower sections of the course.

I could hear voices above me as I passed under what must have been "Black Rock" and came up to the top from the opposite side. There were a few volunteers at the summit and one took a Sharpie to my bib and sent me on down the other side of the rock. I had to kind of slide down the steep, but short rock face and of course that's when one of the volunteers was taking pictures, getting us not running! Hahaha. Anyway, we ended up looping the entire rock and I saw some camping equipment set up under the rock as I completed the loop and headed into traffic, back down the course.

Since I could now see the other runners coming toward me, it seemed that there were quite a few people not far behind. We tried to make way for each other and that worked well until one time when I lost control and slammed my hip into a tree and ended up hugging it for a moment. It wasn't bad at the time, but later in the day, I'd find a nice bruise that was pretty tender to the touch.

Much of the descent down that now 650' drop over 1/3 mile was run just on the edge of my being under control. It wasn't that I was trying to race down it, but it was so steep and muddy, it was hard to go slowly. Many times, I'd have to look ahead to find a tree to grab to keep me on the trail and from hitting other runners on their way up. I saw Doug and Sayrd on this stretch, as well as another member of the Revolutions club, Kevin. Despite trying to use caution, the descent went much quicker than the climb and soon enough, I found myself back out on the double-track, ready for a (hopefully) runnable three miles to the finish.

And I actually felt really good as I started running again. It was a little bit gravity assisted as I was on a gradual downhill, but I felt like I was running at a 5K pace, at least at the time. There were not many rocks to worry about dodging, so if there was any part of the course where anyone could make up time, this was it. I got to the split pretty quickly and was sent down a trail we hadn't come up. I had no idea what this trail would hold and why we were going down it, but it was also double-track and early on it was very runnable. I didn't look back on the descent, even on the switchbacks, but tried to listen for Johnny, Sayrd, or other runners to come by me. The first place female was pretty close behind when I was coming down and I wondered if she was one of those runners who's really good on downhills and would be zipping by at any moment.

I was running pretty fast for me, but not faster than I could safely dodge the occasional rock. Eventually, the trail got more technical and I had to slow down. Around this time, I began to notice what felt like a blister on the heel of my right foot. I assumed it was from sliding around in my shoe on the downhill. It quickly escalated from being noticeable to being somewhat painful if the heel hit the ground, so I tried to land my right foot closer to the toes. It worked, but it was a bit awkward on the more technical stuff. Even though it was misty, off to the left, I could see that I still had a lot of elevation to lose, but it was dropping quickly.

I came upon a trail junction with some volunteers and my first thought was that this was the mile two aid station from earlier and I still had two miles to go. Then, I realized they had moved down the course to direct traffic and while I didn't know what I had left (like with Umstead, I didn't look at the map very closely,) I knew/hoped it couldn't be too far. And, it wasn't. I started to see things I remembered from the morning and heard the creek we had paralleled early in the race. After a minute or three, I could see the start/finish area ahead. I was still moving at a pretty good clip, but favoring that right heel, and I heard some lady say something about "him being injured too" when I came through. I didn't hear my time because they were asking for my bib number, which was pinned to my shorts and covered by my shirt. I did know I was fourth overall, which was way better than I expected. Johnny came in shortly after me, then another guy, and then Sayrd.

The awards ceremony started a little over two hours after the race began, so there were some runners still on the course. One thing that this race does that I'm a little unsure about is award belt buckles to anyone breaking 101 minutes. I don't know the significance of that time cutoff, but the awarding of buckles does step on the toes of the 100-miler tradition, as Sean Blanton pointed out on the race's Facebook page. I like that they came up with a creative incentive to break a certain time goal, but kind of wish they'd have thought of a different award for doing so. People breaking that time were also eligible for a door prize that they picked. I grabbed a pair of lightweight gloves, figuring if I couldn't use them, Leslie could. There were no age group awards and the top three male and female overall won engraved glass beer steins.
The course map, which I again forgot to study.

Parking involved them using (with permission) a lot of private property so I'm not sure if the race can grow much larger than it was this year, and they may not even want it to. It was a good, challenging run (with a lot of hike) tempered only by the fact that we didn't get to enjoy what must have been a nice view at the summit on this overcast morning. Ironically, as we were leaving, the clouds were breaking up and the sun had come out, but Doug wasn't interested in hiking back up to the top. So, we headed out to get something to eat and then drove to the Bowlens Creek trailhead to let him experience some of the Quest for the Crest trail. We wouldn't have time to do as much of it as he originally wanted, but at least we made almost to the Woody Ridge trail junction and he got to see the view and the profile of the Crest Trail stretching out toward Mount Mitchell. When we combined this hike with the race, we determined that we'd have roughly 12,000' in elevation change in our 15 mile day, which explains why my thighs would be sore for the next several days.