Friday, November 30, 2012

The Montserrat Pirate Marathon

IV Marató Pirata de Montserrat

It was getting to the end of our trip, but we still had at least one adventure to come.  Xavier, a Catalan runner  I'd been put in touch with for information about the Camí dels Bons Homes, had mentioned that his running team was organizing a "pirate marathon" (a free, loosely-organized, non-race event) at Montserrat, a mountain about 45 minutes northwest of Barcelona, for the day before our flight left.  He kindly invited us to join, and Divesh, Carles, and I decided that sounded like a pretty good idea.

Xavier's team are called the Koalas, apparently named after the founder being told that he ran like a koala.  This meant it was an appropriate event for Divesh, who has been told that he climbs like a drunk koala.

The Koalas and their friends are good at running, but also at putting on parties, eating, and drinking.  About 30 runners, including us, met up in a restaurant on Friday night around 10pm for dinner and drinks.  The friendliness and enthusiasm in the room was incredibly impressive.  The group reminded me of our little network of Midwestern runners, only with more decibels and a significantly more relaxed approach to sleeping and hydrating.  While many runners stayed up all night and then went straight out for the marathon, Carles and Divesh and I were in the group of weaklings who retreated to a hotel around 1 am for a few hours of sleep.

The idea for the marathon was to have lots of differently-paced groups start at different times, with the slowest starting first, then the next-fastest, etc., so that everyone would end around the same time.  This was key, because there was an impressive after-run lunch that nobody would want to miss.  Carles and Divesh and I went with one of the middle groups, which started at 5 a.m. and was supposed to take 8 hours to finish.  The description of the pace said it would involve plenty of walking and photo stops, so I figured that no matter how hard the mountain trails were, 8 hours to finish a marathon was plenty...

Our group met up at the start just before 5 a.m., got a course briefing (unless my Catalan failed me, the main navigational message was "Don't get lost.  If you get lost, you're doomed.") and set off.  What followed was some of the most crazy, but also most fun, 8.5 hours of running I've ever done.  Each group had a couple of guides who knew where they were going, but the rest of us had no clue, so everyone, which was about 30 people, had to stay together.  This meant a frantic, headless-chicken type scramble not to get behind, which was a little tricky when we unexpectedly set off at 8 minute miles in the dark.

The first trip up the mountain was a bit of a shock.  It went on for miles, on steep, technical ground.  It was now all too evident why it was going to take us 8 hours to finish this thing.  Fortunately, once it started getting light, the views provided plenty of distraction from the hard work.

As good as the views were, the people were even better.  Your legs can only hurt so much when you're surrounded by such nice people.

Photo from Senglar's team

And my legs did hurt.  The headless-chicken style of run continued for pretty much the entire time, especially when the guys in the photo above (who I was not about to lose, since they knew where they were going) took off like they were running a 10k... this was one fast bunch of runners!

This is where I unfortunately have to give some bad news to Minnesota runners.  We may pride ourselves on how great our aid stations are, but we are in fact being seriously outdone by the Catalans.  Exhibit A:

This is a sample of aid station food, including fresh baguettes, spread with high-quality olive oil, and various types of Spanish ham.  What I unfortunately didn't manage to capture in this shot is the pot of chocolate fondue with fruit for dipping.  Or the beer.

Exhibit B is the next aid station.  When we got there, there was a long line leading to a table.  We couldn't figure out what the line was for--water?  Coke?  No, of course not.  It was for face-painting, rum, mini golf, and hopscotch.  Because what else would you have at mile 22?

After this aid station, it was "just" one brutal trip up and down the mountain again, and we were home.  We were met with food, more beer, and a group trip to a buffet.  I don't think the buffet owners knew what hit them when 100 runners, who had just been out running up and down a mountain for 6 to 12 hours, descended on their restaurant!

I was telling Xavier on Friday night that with all the great people in both of our respective running groups (the Minnesota/honorary Minnesotan runners, and the Barcelona-area runners), it would be great to do a runner exchange, with some runners from here going to one of their races and vice versa.  Keep this in mind and I'll post more about future developments!

Home Away From Home

Climbing and Running in the Montsant area:  
Siurana, Margalef, and the Montsant national park


The village of Cornudella de Montsant doesn't feel like home to me in the way some places do, but it's one of my very favorite places in the world.  The village itself is old and small, in a good way:  life moves slowly and you can't help but relax.  You never know when exactly the shops are going to be open, and the primary source of village news appears to be the 1940s-style megaphone that periodically blasts out upbeat nationalistic tunes and information.  From the village, in just a few minutes, you can run for hours on some of the best trails of anywhere, or you can go sport climbing at two world-class crags, Siurana and Margalef.  And the local wine and olives are excellent.  What more could a person want?  If only someone would open a decent restaurant nearby, it'd be paradise...


This trip, I was climbing (much) less and running more, so even though there were no satisfying ticks, there were still nice days at the crag.  Maria and I spent a good amount of time exploring the Montsant trails and found some great ones.

Divesh did an impressive amount of climbing for someone who doesn't even have a local climbing wall to train on, and somehow found some extra energy to run to the top of Montsant with me one evening.  I didn't bring a camera on that run, which I really regretted because it turned out to be one of the most scenic runs of the trip--the trail wound its way along the top of the crag, with the entire crag lit up in the late-evening light.  The route is definitely going on the list for a repeat visit next trip.

Fortunately, there is a certain next trip.  I learned from Carles that there's a 100k on the Montsant trails in October, called the Ultra Trail Serra de Montsant.  It immediately went on my calendar for next year!  My climber friend Michael has more or less agreed (we'll call it more) to run it too, so I sense a long, running/climbing trip in the works...

Monday, November 26, 2012

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes: Introduction

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes (a.k.a. La Ruta de los Cátaros / Le Chemin des Bonshommes / GR 107):

A joint run report by Alicia and Maria

**Edit:  I decided to reorder these posts to go from first to last chronologically, instead of in reverse order as they appear by default on the blog.  I think it makes it a lot easier to read them this way, but let me know if you think it's worse...

For me, November is usually all about sport climbing in Catalunya.  Or it was, until I stopped doing much climbing over the past two years.  I still planned a trip for this November, but with my friend Dave (my usual Spanish sport climbing partner) injured, my other Spanish climbing partners busy, Divesh having only one week of vacation from work, and me out of shape, it was clearly not going to be the usual type of trip.

"Unusual" worked out okay.  Maria was able to get away from work for 10 days and we made a plan to spend the first week of the trip running in the Pyrenees...somewhere.  It was the "where" part that we weren't exactly sure about, even up to less than a week before the trip.  Luckily, Bryon of irunfar put me in touch with his Catalan friend Xavier, who turned out to be an extremely friendly goldmine of information.  He suggested the Camí dels Bons Homes, a trail that runs north-south from northern Catalunya to southern France.  The idea behind the trail's creation was to follow the route the Cathars took in escaping French persecution in the 13th century.  And although it goes over the Pyrenees, it generally heads over lower passes than some of the other trails in the area, so it was likely to not be snowed under even in November.  It looked good, a little too good--I was too excited to sleep for a few days before we left!

After getting into Barcelona on Saturday morning, Maria and I met my friend Carles in town and bought a guidebook for the trail at a wonderful bookshop called Altair that I could have spent hours in.  All three of us then drove up to Berga, the small town nearest to the start of the trail.  It was mostly dark by the time we got there and it was more than a little unnerving to see the outlines of tall, steep, cloud-shrouded mountains, including the lights of the hermitage where the run started...with the lights being FAR above the town.  

We had a good, if somewhat nervous, dinner at a restaurant in Berga and were treated to our first lesson in why the Catalans are so good at mountain running:  the restaurant was showing ultrarunning on its television!  Can you imagine anywhere in the US where people would value ultrarunning enough to put it on the television of a non-runner-oriented bar or restaurant?

And, on that inspirational note, we were ready to begin the adventure...


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes: Part 1

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes (a.k.a. La Ruta de los Cátaros / Le Chemin des Bonshommes / GR 107):
A joint run report by Alicia and Maria

Part 1:  Berga (Queralt sanctuary) to Gósol, approx. 22 miles

We had an ignominious start to our big run.  Maria was chased out of the hotel breakfast room (it was apparently too early), we were ignored by a large group of heavily lycra-clad mountain bikers in the hotel lobby, and we took a taxi from the hotel to the trailhead!  It was either that or an uphill hour-long walk; Maria and Carles both knew how I feel about unnecessary walking.  

After being dropped off at the Queralt sanctuary and spending a good few minutes hunting around for the exact location of the trailhead, we started running.  Carles was perturbed that we were planning to run fast enough to be taking our jackets off, and, in typical Carles-sandbag-style, he claimed that when he goes for a training run in the mountains, he "dresses like a pro" but "mostly goes for a walk."  Apparently this strategy has served him well, since he's finished both the Arrowhead 135 (many times) and the Badwater 135 with his patented marxa atlètica.

The first few miles involved perfect running on smooth, non-technical singletrack.  

There was lots of fog at first, but also friendly cows, friendly gossos (dogs), and forests. 

I was able to drool over some good-looking crags, many of which weren't even developed for climbing, which seemed horribly unfair considering they would have all been the best crags in Wisconsin.

The trail and scenery changed often over the course of this day.  We covered everything from forested singletrack to rocky ascents to dirt road. 

We had one bigger, long climb of about 600m during which Maria gave us both ridiculous trail names...

Other than the one longer ascent, it was mostly small hills in this day's section of the route.  The only part of the section that we didn't like was the last stretch before the village of Gósol, which mostly involved muddy cowpaths through forests and cowfields.  But, soon enough (okay, not very soon, the day's run took us nearly 6.5 hours!) we were at the hotel in Gósol, our stopping point for the day.

We had decided to run the route in stages, and also to stay at hotels each night so we wouldn't have to run with sleeping bags or camping gear.  It was definitely the most pleasant way to see the route; a non-stop ultra style run would have meant missing out on much of the best scenery during the nights!

After a nice lunch and welcome hot showers, Carles had to drive back to Barcelona, and Maria and I spent the afternoon napping (her) and reading the paper for lack of being able to sleep (me).  This was followed up by what turned out to be the best dinner of the run: salad, a massive bowl of escudella, perfect tortilla de patatas, and plenty of good wine.  After all, we wouldn't want to have burned any net calories, right?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes: Part 2

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes (a.k.a. La Ruta de los Cátaros / Le Chemin des Bonshommes / GR 107):
A joint run report by Alicia and Maria

Part 2:  Gósol to Bellver de Cerdanya, approx. 30 miles

Day 2 started with some very stiff legs trying to trot up a very steep hill.  The climb out of Gósol is not too long but packs a significant punch, especially at 7:30 a.m. after not very much sleep and not much in the way of breakfast.  Fortunately it ends in some of the very best running of the route:  a ribbon of perfect singletrack across the side of the mountain, high above the valley.  My photos don't even remotely do this section justice (click on them to enlarge), but you can at least get the idea:

We were a bit nervous about the navigation at this point because Carles had been our guidebook reader and navigator the day before, and now he was gone and we were left on our own with the all-Catalan guidebook.  Between the two of us we understood most of what it said, but there were some gaps in our knowledge.  For example, the guidebook ominously referred to a section with lots of "fang," as in, "Be careful here, there is a lot of fang."  We didn't know what this was at the time but we assumed it couldn't be good and liked to periodically remind each other "Watch out for the fangs!"  (Carles later informed us that it means mud.)

When we got to the top of the first pass, after the beautiful singletrack section, it was suddenly winter.

Unfortunately the trail went onto this dirt road here, and we had to do a steep 6-mile descent all on hard-packed road--ouch.  At the bottom of the road was Bagà, which is the town where, for ultrarunning fans, the Cavalls del Vent race starts and finishes.  For food fans, they also have a fine bakery, which we took full advantage of.

We left Bagà a little after 1 pm, which meant we were going to be cutting it pretty close as to whether or not we'd make it to our planned destination before dark.  Maria noted that it possibly would have been sensible to stop in Bagà, considering that it got dark around 5:30 and we would have almost twice as much climbing to do in the second half of the day as in the first.  I claimed without any supporting facts that we'd be fine, and we set off again.

After a few km on the road, the trail turned colorful and foresty as we made our way up about 1,000m of elevation gain over 12km.

The views from the top of the pass were pretty spectacular:

Alas, even 12km of uphill hadn't been enough for our quads to recover from the earlier big descent, and the run down the other side of the pass was fairly painful.  We had to race the clock a bit to get down before dark, but we made it with maybe 15 minutes to spare.  We were relieved to see a hotel right at the entrance to the village, which in fact turned out to be not technically Bellver but rather an even smaller "suburb."  The hotel, the Cal Rei, was perfect and came complete with friendly gossos, a friendly owner, books to read, and a good hotel restaurant which served almost entirely local food.

At night Maria forced us to take ice baths, which, while painful, may have helped, since we both felt significantly less sore the next day.  There may be inconclusive research on whether ice baths work but so far, on anecdotal experience, I'm ready to conclude that they do!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes: Part 3

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes (a.k.a. La Ruta de los Cátaros / Le Chemin des Bonshommes / GR 107):
A joint run report by Alicia and Maria

Part 3:  Bellver de Cerdanya to Porta, approx. 23 miles

It was the big day:  the border crossing day!  We were going over La Portella Blanca, which is right at the edge of Spain, France, and Andorra.  Once the trail crosses La Portella Blanca, you descend into France and end up in the very small village of Porta.

In the morning we said goodbye to our new dog friends and pocketed some packets of Crembo, an offbrand of Nutella, from the hotel breakfast, as emergency food rations in case anything should go horribly wrong on the run, and left Bellver.

Of course, border crossing day unsurprisingly came in conjunction with "really big mountain" day.  We had to do a long climb of about 1500 metres, which was mostly contained in the last 10k or so before the border.  I was nervous for most of the morning because there were some storm clouds heading our way and we expected the climb to take a long time.  We were also potentially going to end up right at the top of the peak around the time it got dark...

In the end, it didn't actually take that long--we must have finally been getting into mountain shape.  We did have to cross the Bridge de Fusta de Muerte at one point, though we were rewarded just afterwards by a herd of cows crossing the path; Maria got a quality video of this.

We loved the trail on the main part of the ascent:

On the way up to the steepest part of the border crossing, there was a largely-but-not-entirely decomposed dead cow in a stream.  A bad omen for what was to come?  We wondered whether we'd be joining the cow carcass if there was a lot of snow on the descent into France.

After a steep last uphill, we made it to the border!

We had thought we were suffering on the long ascent to the border crossing, but after the start of the descent, we realized how wrong we'd been.  *This* was suffering.  In the bullet point format in which we later wrote things down, the problems with France included:

Bogs.  Too many rocks.  Lack of defined trail.  Water everywhere causing wet shoes.  Mean ponies.  A rock bridge that we initially gave the French credit for building but which later turned out to have formed naturally.  Zonas de fang, lots of them.  False bottoms to the descents.  We couldn't see the village we were trying to get to until we were 5 minutes away.  Horrible steep rock road to descend.

In other words, we were not big fans of the French side of the trail.

We eventually made it to Porta and got a room in the village's only hotel, which also contained the village's only bar, the village's only cafe, and the village's only restaurant.  Despite it being about 5 degrees C at this point, none of the above had any heat.  Our room was mostly reminiscent of a prison cell.  The hotel owners were at least friendly, and the dinner was fairly good if not quite big enough for how hungry we were.  We ate, listened to a few podcasts, and curled up in bed wearing all the clothes we had with us.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes: Part 4

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes (a.k.a. La Ruta de los Cátaros / Le Chemin des Bonshommes / GR 107):

A joint run report by Alicia and Maria

Part 4:  Porta to L'Hospitalet, approx. 7 miles

The start of day 4 fully confirmed our feelings about the French side of the trail.  There was no food to be found in Porta, so we set off without any breakfast (we could have had breakfast at the hotel, but we had turned it down as it was expensive and we were thinking we'd find a cafe instead).

                                Porta.  Looks nice, right?  Looks can be deceiving.

The part of the trail out of Porta was, for lack of a better description, boring.  There wasn't much in the way of scenery, since the trail mostly followed near a main road and went through cowfields and random grassy slopes.  We saw lots of mud, train tracks, and ski hill equipment.

At one point we came to a fork in the trail where both paths of the fork were marked with our trail's marking.  A quick Catalan learning session allowed us to figure out that we were supposed to take the left one, but considering what happened next, perhaps we should have taken the right fork...  Less than half a km after the fork, we got to an extremely sturdy gate.  Most of the cattle gates we'd seen so far had consisted of just a thin line of wire, sometimes with a bit of electrical current.  This one was practically bulletproof compared to the others.  We thought briefly about why that might be but then pressed onwards.

And then...cow attack.  We had been running at the edge of a cow field for a while when I suddenly heard Maria yell from behind me, "Um--Alicia!"  Considering that Maria is calm in the face of pretty much everything, you know it's a bad sign when she sounds worried.  I turned around to see a face-off between Maria and a large cow with significant-sized horns.  When it started running towards Maria, she got ready to throw her water bottle at it and I, less industriously, tried yelling "Hey!" at it in what I hoped was a menacing sort of way.  Luckily the cow decided to run away from Maria to join some of the other attack-cows in the field on our other side.  We ran away quickly but straight away had to cross between several more clumps of the same kinds of cow.  We armed ourselves with big sticks but didn't feel particularly safe even then, and from what we could tell all of the cows in this area had murder in their eyes.

After we finally made it out of the last cow field, we headed up a long, strenuous, and thoroughly pointless climb that was essentially in a gap between curves in a highway.  At the top we were rewarded with a scenic view of a burned out truck and a boarded up hotel. 

Nice one, France.  Maria suggested we go back to Spain, which would have been a far better idea than pressing onwards, but we were stubborn enough to keep going.

There was a long, barren stretch of dirt road to finish off this climb.  While it was frustrating not to be on a trail, we did have good views:

After this climb, there was a really nice descent on good singletrack.  The singletrack moved into position as France's sole redeeming feature at this point.

We descended into L'Hospitalet, a little village close to the border with Andorra.  Our guidebook had made it sound like this would be a large-ish town with plenty of places to stay and things to eat, so we had decided that we would end our day's run early here and do touristy things and relax the rest of the day.  Sadly, things were not quite as they had sounded like they'd be.  There was a hotel, fortunately, but that was about it.  It had heat, which we now considered a bonus.  The owners were very friendly and we got to talk to them for a while, which was probably the best part about the stay.  The hotel restaurant was very good but extremely expensive; I think we spent double the money here that we spent in any other town.  We made friends with the couple sitting next to us at dinner, as well as their dog Titeuf.  The hotel also continued our run's trend of good TV by showing a program about a long distance horse race, which everyone in the bar was completely entranced by.

By the end of the night, we had decided that we were going to wrap up the run early.  We still had another 40 miles to the end, but neither of us was feeling particularly inspired by the French part of the trail, and Maria's knee was currently swollen to about triple size.  We went to bed without a particularly clear plan of what we were going to do but with the knowledge that at least we didn't have to get up and start running.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Running the Camí dels Bons Homes: the encore

Appropriately, the end of our run was as ignominious as the start.  We packed our things up from the hotel in L'Hospitalet, decided one more time that we didn't really want to run any further down the trail, and slumped off to the train station.  We ran into Titeuf and his owner and had one more nice chat with them, then thoroughly embarrassed ourselves by getting onto one train and then changing our minds and running off at the last second in order to get on a different train.  With that plus our appearances and running gear, the train conductor thought we were absolutely insane.

We ended up having a nice little addition to our adventure, though.  We went to a village near Ussat-les-Bains to visit my friends John and Anne, two climbers whose house I lived in when I lived in Sheffield.  They moved to the Ariège region a few years ago and bought an old farmhouse, which they renovated extensively into a beautiful guesthouse called Chez Arran.  At the time I was unconvinced that their move was a good plan, because of course there's no gritstone in the Ariège, and as far as I knew it rained all the time there.  But after seeing the local crags and scenery and discovering that the weather is indeed better than in Sheffield, I was much more convinced (although they do still have the problem of a lack of gritstone!).

John took us to see a really nice-looking crag with some hard routes, called Grotte de Sabart, and then for a nice walk up to some castle ruins and back to the house for a visit with Anne.  It was really good to see both of them.  When Maria and I got on the train that evening to head back to Spain, we thought our adventure was over.  In fact, the outline of this run report, which we wrote on the train after we left the Arrans' house, ends with the visit to the Arrans.  But either fortunately or unfortunately, the run still had more in store for us.

The public transport situation from France back to Berga (in Spain, where our car was) was complicated.  We had to take a train to the French town of Latour de Carol, then change to a Spanish train to cross the border.  At Puigcerdà, we'd have to change from a train to a bus.  The problem was that we got to Latour after the last train to Spain left.  And there was nothing, truly nothing, in Latour--the entire town was shut up, black, and silent.  We saw one sign for a hotel but it was closed indefinitely.  We even ran into a woman at a house with a sign saying it was a gite, but even though we talked to her, she didn't give any indication that we could stay there.

We knew that it was only a 6-minute train ride from Latour to Puigcerdà, so we figured it couldn't be too far.  We decided to run to Puigcerdà and then hopefully find at least a hotel, if not a bus, there.  The run was pretty unnerving, with lots of getting lost trying to find out way out of Latour, barking dogs, and dark, sketchy-looking parts of town.  In one of the most bizarre moments of the trip, we actually saw the first and only runner of the entire route, running next to some train tracks in the middle of the night (okay, maybe more like 9pm, but it felt like the middle of the night to us).  If Maria hadn't confirmed that we'd seen and talked to him, I would have thought it was a hallucination. To be fair I think he was just as confused to run into two lost American girls as we were to have run into him.

We finally made it to Puigcerdà and successfully found a hotel and food, and made our way back to Berga the next day.  After a short wander around Barcelona, we had very welcome showers and changes of clothes at Carles's house and then an amazing "return to civilization" dinner with Carles and his girlfriend Elena at a very good seafood restaurant in Arenys del Mar.  The adventure was finally over.  Fortunately, we had several more days of Catalan running, food, and climbing to come...

Friday, October 26, 2012

Grand Rapids Marathon race report: How much is mental?

After several years of running mostly 50k to 100 milers, I was eager to run a road marathon.  It had been two years since I'd run one, and even that last one two years ago wasn't a "real" try because I'd had a stress fracture and hadn't run more than 3 or 4 times in the 10 weeks leading up to the race.  I ran 3:28 there and knew I could do better with some proper marathon training.

                    Last marathon:  the Marató Costa Daurada.  It was fun!  Which I suppose in the road marathon world    
                          means I was doing it wrong.

So, going into Grand Rapids, the idea was that I would do a few track workouts but mostly use my ultrarunning fitness and increased mileage to effortlessly run 3:20, feeling stronger and stronger from mile 18 to the end.

Ha ha!  In my defense, though, I'm not sure I ever actually believed this.

My 3:20 plan got called into question when I realized that my friend Tracy had a PR of 3:18:38.  I was a little nervous about moving my goal up even further, but it was awfully tempting to try for 3:18:37--I mean, that's not that much faster than 3:20, right??  Up until a week before my marathon, I still hadn't decided whether to go for 3:18 or 3:20.  And that's when Tracy really screwed things up for me:  she ran a 3:16:20.  This was now likely to be way too fast for me, so I (mostly) set aside the goal of beating her PR and decided to stick with 3:20.  But that 3:16 stuck in the back of my head.

Training had gone well, and a bit of luck with the weather brought perfect conditions at the start, which would continue throughout the race.  The race started with a 4.5 mile loop around downtown streets, ending up back near the start line.  This loop was flat, fast, and as scenic as downtown running can get, but what I was noticing most of all was that it was HARD.  I've always heard that the first few miles of a marathon should feel easy.  This didn't feel easy.  It felt like a hard track workout, and even though I was sticking to the pace I'd done a few race-pace training runs at (just under 7:30 minute miles), my heart rate was about 5 beats per minute higher than it had been in training.  By mile 3, I was wondering if it was time to panic.

One nice thing about a road marathon, I discovered, was that it goes by amazingly fast.  Before I knew it we were at mile 8.  I wasn't feeling any better, but I also wasn't feeling any worse.  For reasons that I'm sure made sense at the time, I took this as a sign that it was safe to speed up a bit.  Everything stayed roughly the same as far as pain and difficulty, though, which was encouraging.  I was looking forward to seeing Divesh at mile 17 and getting a cup of coke from him:

                                          Road marathons can be scenic!

  I got my coke.  I spilled about 3/4 of it on my clothes, which ended up being a good thing because the 1/4 that I did drink didn't feel so good to my stomach.

Then everything started going horribly wrong.  Cramps, brain fog, nausea...I slowed down to about 7:45 or even 8:00/mile, even though the road was completely flat and perfect for running.  I was frustrated--this was mile 18, this was where I was supposed to feel strong and speed up!--but concentrated on not losing too much time and hoped that things would improve later.  In the meantime, miles 18 to 21 hurt every bit as much as the end stages of a 100 miler, and in some ways I might even say they hurt more.  My neck began to hurt intensely and I was having trouble holding my head upright; I felt like I was going to faint because I was running too fast on too little food (I ate 2.5 Gu packets during the race and threw up at least part of one of them).  I had been having a problem with my right hamstring and right hip flexor for months and they felt like jelly at this point.

Eventually I had a minor second wind and pushed to the finish for a chip time of...

...3:16:19.  Which brings me to the point of this race report:  racing is far more mental than I would have ever previously thought.  I ran what felt like my absolute best effort, but it can't be a coincidence that this was exactly one second less than the Tracy PR I had in the back of my mind.  Instead, I think my brain knew exactly how much effort I had to put in to beat that PR and calibrated all of my perception of how hard I was running to match that effort.  Maybe the one-second difference rather than a five-second difference was a coincidence, but in general I think my time was 90% mental.  In this case, that worked out in my favor:  without Tracy's PR in mind, I probably would have gone about three minutes slower.  But in other situations, that could have resulted in a slower time than I was capable of.  It's a good reminder to be aware of any mental limitations I might have subconsciously placed on a race and to be as objective as possible about how hard an effort feels mid-race...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

West Highland Way race report: a DNT

I have concluded that we runners are missing a term for a certain kind of race:  the kind where you get to the finish line, you get your official finish time, and somehow, after all that work, you still have the unmistakable feeling that you didn't really do any better than a DNF.  Until someone comes up with a term for that, I'll call this the DNT:  did not try.

The West Highland Way is a 95 mile path from just north of Glasgow to Fort William.  It's hard to describe what the path is like because it varies so much--some of it is road-race style flat, some of it is big hills (one descent is 1800 feet in a little over 3 miles.  That's about the same steepness as Hope Pass, and nearly as long.) and a lot of it is rolling hills, sort of Kettle Moraine-style.  And the path itself varies from totally smooth to barely runnable, although there are a lot more smooth-ish bits than rough bits.  Here are a couple of photos from a training run on the WHW a few weeks before the race, during a rare moment of it not raining:

When I first entered the race, I had thought of it as an interesting, scenic race that I would probably do just to finish.  But as things worked out, I ended up with a decent amount of time to train for the race and I was ready to have my first try at actually racing, as opposed to just trying to finish, 100-ish miles.  Having heard how "flat" (ha!  I still can't believe I fell for this) the course was, I was first aiming for 21:30.  A training run on the course a few weeks before the race told me that was wildly out of the question, and I moved the goal to 22:30, with sub-24 as a backup goal.    

                                                                     Race start

The conditions for the DNT started well before the start line and included lack of sleep, lack of decent food, and enormous amounts of rain for several days before the race.  The rain briefly stopped the evening of the race (the race starts at 1 am) but quickly resumed normal service within a few miles of us having started off.  And, unsurprisingly, the running was hard work.  I was sleepy from the general lack of sleep the week before and not running particularly well because of either a lack of training--I really should have done a 50-miler in the weeks leading up to the race--and/or lack of decent food the week before.  The details of most of the race would be horribly boring, so just imagine lots of sinking into mud, running through trail that was mostly a river, feeling wet and miserable, being eaten alive by midges every time the rain let up, and slipping over rocks.  And those were the good parts.

No, actually, the good part was seeing my support crew at various points along the race. The WHW race is like Badwater in that all the runners have to have their own support crew in a car, although that is probably the only possible similarity you could find between the WHW and Badwater!  I had Nick, a runner friend, and Dave, a climber friend, as my team.  

                             The support crew dream team:  Nick (above) and Dave (below)

They had never crewed before but somehow managed to do everything exactly right, from surprising me with hot soup when I was so cold at mile 50 to being super fast with getting stuff ready and having a change of clothes and a hot burger (yes, hot, Dave had a lunchbox insulator to keep it warm!) for me later on.  And Nick had a 3 am checkpoint to be at near the start of the race so he had to be up for the entire race.  Both of them must have been cold, bored, and midge-bitten for the whole ordeal, and I’d say they are saints for having put up with this. 

So that was the good part, but the mud, water, midges, and rocks were still the sort-of-good parts when compared to the general failure that was my race, i.e. the DNT.  Basically, although I dragged myself to the finish in 26:31, my mind gave up somewhere around mile 50.  I was 30 minutes behind my planned schedule getting into the mile 50 checkpoint and I must have spent at least 20 minutes at that checkpoint, drinking my soup, fixing my gloves (or whatever it was I thought I was doing!) and trying to warm up, all of which were very nice but none of which were necessary:  I was cold but not "Round Rotherham" cold, and I knew the next section was flat and runnable and that I would warm up in no time if I just got going.  I wasn't consciously aware of unnecessarily wasting time here but I think it was the product of being behind schedule, being frustrated with the cold and wet, and being convinced that a decent time was out of the question.  

                                    At the Glencoe checkpoint, mile 70ish.  Stalling as long as I could.

Over the next few sections I slowly lost interest in racing and went into "just finishing" mode, which included walking when I didn't have to, stopping for ages each time I saw my crew, changing clothes more times than necessary, stopping to stretch out on a mat at the mile 81 checkpoint, and not keeping up with my food after I started feeling sick.  Dave paced me from mile 81 to the end and did an excellent job of force-feeding me and speeding me up a bit, but I shouldn't have needed that much prodding just to do a bit of jogging; my ankles were in rough shape but the rest of me was fine, or at least fine in the grand scheme of being at mile 81+.  

They were definitely an enjoyable last 15 miles, since we got to have a nice leisurely chat and a good run in the last 3 or 4 miles when I finally managed to start doing some running again, but I knew I had totally failed at my goals for the race.  The fact is that as appalling as the conditions were, the men's winner broke the course record, with the previous record not being at all soft.  So it *was* possible to have had a good race.  Even if the slow conditions would have made it hard for me to do 22:30, I could have adjusted my schedule to focus on trying for under 24, which could have been highly doable.  Instead, I went for the easygoing-run-during-the-day/death-march-at-night approach, which I can't call an achievement in any sense other than just physically making it to the finishing line; having done Arrowhead, I already knew I could pull off a long slog if necessary, so doing that didn’t break any personal new ground.  

The combination of months of good training plus having such a good support crew made for an excellent opportunity which I feel pretty depressed to have wasted.  I’m glad I finished, partly because I’d travelled so far for the race and partly because the last few miles were so much fun, but that’s a pretty small amount of satisfaction compared with how I feel about my poor effort.  The DNT was an unusual outcome for me in particular, since my general plan of action with most things is to have no talent but to try really hard.  I’m trying to figure out what the lesson to be learnt is, other than the obvious reminder not to waste a good race opportunity, but I’m not coming up with much:  do more 100s to eventually get better at them?  Work harder on the mental aspect of a 100?    Opt for 5k’s in the future?!

                                   Whatever races I do next, it would be nice if there are a 
                                 bit fewer midges involved.  The aftermath of the race-day midge carnage:


This has become quite the doom and gloom race report, so I’ll point out now that there were also plenty of good moments in the race:
 -Nick’s hilarious glow-in-the-dark antennae for easy crew finding
-running with some nice people for a few short periods—Helen, after Balmaha, and Carrie, for a while before Auchtertyre
-a runner in an orange jacket who gave me some peanuts when I was busy vomiting between Crianlarich and Auchtertyre.  Thank you, whoever you were, they were perfect and they did settle my stomach!  
-doing some running up the hill around mile 62 and meeting a man who is apparently named Murdo and who offered some very kind words and a welcome sweet
-the excellent views looking back down the Devils Staircase
-the last few miles down into Glen Nevis and along the flat to Fort William

Friday, February 3, 2012

Arrowhead 135 race report

This is a long report, but that might be fitting given the long time it has taken me to finally finish this race.  My Arrowhead saga began back in December of 2008, when I found out about the race from a friend and immediately wanted to try it.  Unfortunately I had just had ankle surgery and was still in a walking cast by the week of the race, so I couldn't run it, but I did want to at least check it out.  Since I couldn't walk, I decided to try the race as a skier (Arrowhead has different divisions for biking, skiing, and running) and just drop at one of the checkpoints, hopefully learning enough about the race to finish it the next time.  But the next time, in 2010, I had stomach problems and dropped out, and the time after that (2011) I suffered from a lack of motivation and burnt out legs, and dropped out then too...

The best part about having been to the race in 2008 was that I met Carles, a runner from Barcelona, and we ended up seeing more of each other when I would go climbing in Spain and when he would come to the US every year for Arrowhead and/or Badwater.  For 2012, Carles suggested that we run the race together, which was incredibly nice of him since he has already done the race several times and didn't have any need to do it again.

Arrowhead 2012 started off with the usual fun weekend of meals at the Chocolate Moose, a stay at the Voyageur Inn, gear check, and the pre-race meeting.  Note that these are listed in order of importance!

                                      Gear check

                                       Team Black Jacket Ninjas at the pre-race meeting in 2011

Having a forecast with incredibly warm temperatures for the whole race made the whole thing a little less intimidating.  Race morning was warm (at least as far as International Falls in winter goes), probably around 11 degrees.  Carles and I started off slowly, right near the back of the pack, and got into a nice pace with a walking/running mix.  Before I knew it we were already at the turn onto the main trail at mile 9, and then the Highway 53 road crossing (mile 18.something) came pretty quickly too.  Things were uneventful in a good way, all the way to Gateway (mile 36).  My food and water was going down (and staying down) okay; I had separated all my food into little bags of about 75 calories each, so I could just know that I had to eat one bag every half hour, without having to think about it.  I also had three mp3 players full of music and podcasts to listen to to stave off the boredom of the snow running and the unchanging scenery.   

Carles and I got temporarily separated after Gateway because he left the checkpoint a bit after me and then had stomach trouble so he stayed back a ways.  I was feeling great and was pleased to be still feeling reasonably wide awake during the night.  During this stretch, at mile 50, I also set a new PR for the most miles into a race before throwing up, which I was rather pleased with!  I met lots of people in this section--Lee from Scotland, who was running with multiple painful injuries and foot problems but who went on to finish; Heidi from Washington, who was extremely fast and seemed to have a better relationship with her sled than I did with mine (she had given hers a cute name, whereas I was telling mine each hour how long it had left to live), and Steve from California, who seemed to have done pretty much every hard race there is to do and didn't even look particularly tired at the end of the race.

Somewhere around mile 62 I felt like I was slowing down and tried sleeping but couldn't fall asleep even though I was warm and comfortable in my bag. 

             Comfy sled bivy (this was actually taken on a training run; I didn't bring a camera during the race)

After that stop I had a rough patch for 8 miles getting into Melgeorge's (mile 70ish) but I knew that it was just a minor bad spot rather than anything seriously wrong.  I ended up at Melgeorge's around 8:30 in the morning and it was a beautiful run (well, mostly walk!) across the lake with the morning light. 

It was extremely fun to finally be at Melgeorge's at a time when I wasn't dropping out of the race!  My stomach was coming back to life and I was able to eat some hot food, and the volunteers got my clothes into the dryer.  I met up with Lynn Saari, another racer, at the cabin we had rented and she proceeded to improve my race for me in many ways--she gave me her spare shoes, which unlike mine were perfectly waterproofed, nice warm socks, the best turkey sandwich ever made, and a waterproof jacket--and she reminded me of tons of things that I needed to do there but had forgotten, plus she told me that she had found my mp3 player on the trail after it had fallen out of a hole in the little pouch on my harness that I had it in.  Thank you so much for everything, Lynn.  Carles turned up a bit later with wet feet but an improving stomach, and we headed out together at 12:30.

We had a great time in the miles out of Melgeorge's.  It was as warm as predicted, we were both feeling strong, and the miles were going by quickly.  It was here that Carles came up with the excellent idea of tandem sledding, which would become the best part of our race.  I had two sleds with me in the race:  one with most of my gear and one tied behind it with my sleeping pad and sleeping bag, all unrolled and ready to jump into.  I was also going with loose rope rather than stiff poles for connecting the sled to the harness, which people do so they can sled down the hills (if you have stiff poles, it's almost never worth the time it takes to undo your harness and get in the sled to sled down).  Carles had stiff poles, but he realized that we could still both sled if I sat in my front sled and he sat in my back sled, with his own sled trailing behind him.  It was really fun and worked very well, or at least it did apart from the hour-long period when I was so tired that I became a bad driver and kept steering us into snowbanks. 

We stopped to bivy for 2 hours at 9pm, but again I couldn't sleep (great time to have insomnia...).  It was nice just to be off my feet for a while though; they were getting to that point where the impact of each step is painful just from the repetitiveness.  And I did feel rested and refreshed after the stop, and I think my driving even improved.

The weather:  the weather was ridiculously warm by Arrowhead standards for the entire race.  It made the snow soft and tiring to run on (and to pull the sled on) but on the whole, at least for me, not having to worry about freezing to death and being able to do things like get food out and change water bottles, without starting to freeze, more than made up for the snow conditions.  It was a bit disappointing not having the regular Arrowhead challenge, but at least the soft snow and warm weather gave us some different challenges to deal with. 

We made it to checkpoint ski pulk (mile 108ish) a little after 5:30 a.m.  At that point, it was pretty much guaranteed that, barring major injury, we were going to finish.  It was an exciting time.  We got our hot chocolate from the checkpoint and then headed out for the home stretch, starting off with a successful tandem sled descent of Mt. Wakemup...

That last section is just so LONG.  When we crossed the road by the Crescent bar at mile 112ish, I was mentally feeling like it was the home stretch, but it eventually sunk in just how long 23 miles with a sled really is.  The visual and auditory (I think all the runners tend to hear phantom snowmobiles and/or people behind them) hallucinations which had been going on since maybe around mile 90 were getting tiring and annoying and I was sick of turning around to check if there was a snowmobile coming, only to findout that the noise wasn't real.  It felt like absolutely forever until we started reaching landmarks that were vaguely near the finish, and even longer til we actually made it to the turnoff for the casino (for anyone who doesn't know, Arrowhead finishes in a casino!).  It's about a mile from the turnoff to the finish line, and even though it felt like it went on for ages, it was an exciting, emotional mile and it was great to be there with Carles.  And then it ended in a beautiful finish line banner, the casino, finally getting an Arrowhead trophy, a shower, the burger that we had been dreaming about for hours, getting to catch up with everyone, and a very very very welcome foot massage from Jennifer.  Bliss.