Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Hells Hills 50 Miler

I picked this race after other plans to get a Western States qualifier fell apart. I’m a two time looser in the Western States lottery. Keeping an entry in the lottery consecutive years gives me more names in the hat to improve the odds but it means every year I need a qualifier race to keep entering the lottery. My original plan to get the entry for and also knock out my first 100 miler was to get it at Rocky Raccoon 100 in February but a broken ankle in a 50k in December took that off the table. I signed up for another 100 miler (Tahoe Rim) and a got on the waitlist for yet another (Vermont 100) both on July 20th not really sure which race would work out but because of how fast these races sell out I wanted to have options. Plans developed and a family reunion with my Dad, brothers and sisters and families started coming together at the end of July in Maine so Vermont now makes great logistical sense then drive over to Maine for some earned R&R. I contact the Vermont Race director to check on my odds to get into with my placement on the waitlist and find my odds are pretty close to nil. There’s a 100k run at the same time (also a 100 mile horse race – that should make it interesting) so I figure maybe the 100k would work out – but the 100k is not a Western States qualifier race (too small I guess). The race director for the Vermont race offered that if I’m signed up for the 100k and there are fewer than 300 bibs picked up on Friday night before the race – she’d upgrade me to the 100 miler which is a qualifying race – but that was a longshot at best – I needed to find another race somewhere and get my qualifier. I searched the list of qualifying races and Hells Hills 50m seemed the best choice because it’s just a couple hours from home – only one problem – as I signed up for the race in January – I had yet to run anything since the 50k broken ankle – could I really ramp up from zero mileage in 2 months then run 50 miles…..hmmmm. I love a challenge.

See the bottom of the Texas Endurance Trail 50k for how training went leading up to this (or here's a graph if you like that kinda thing). Speed came back pretty quick – I could probably do a short race about the same now as I could have done in November. Endurance on the other hand was in short supply. One 20 mile run in training (with some walking) does not a 50 mile training plan make – but I got the peak volume for the last couple weeks up into the 70 miles per week range – I was hoping I could gut it out – I only needed to finish the thing in less than 11 hours – which really isn’t so fast.

Weather forecast was kinda a “B” – not perfect – not terrible – which is pretty good for this race – I think the typical for this race would be a “D/F” – hot and humid – so I’m grateful for this forecast – Start in the low 50s with high humidity with a high for the day around 80. 5am start in the dark means running by headlight for a couple hours with sunrise around 7am.

I invite my son to come with me for a tent out at the start-line. The course is at the Rocky Hill Ranch in Smithville, TX – a mountain biking park. The route runs along the biking trails – three loops around the park. The trails are generally filled with ankle twisters and somehow maximize the trail distance per acre ratio by twisting and turning its way through the forest. Check out the track from the garmin here: Link.  I think if you squint a little looking at the course you can see both the skinny and fat elvis.  Looking at the mountain biking course map the trails are divided much like skiing routes divided into the green, the blue and the black diamond trails and I note before the race the run course appears to hit every black diamond trail in the park. We pitch tent right next to the course about 100’ from the startline.
Since it’s a mountain biking park I bring one to scout out the course a little before it got dark the day before. I didn’t go too far trying to save my legs but my son scouted the trail out a bit farther and came back with a full inch of mud caked on the tires and breaks
– I’m imagining my shoes like that the next day – two pairs, 3 loops – I’m preparing Ryan to be cleaning my first pair of shoes while I run the second loop. A couple guys I know I see at packet pick-up (100’ from the tent) and they pitch tent next to ours. Robert King was the winner of this race the first year and I’ve known him for years running around the trails near my house, Sandy Corn I’ve known from an on-line running forum (went by Slowdown) and has run Western States a couple years back after 5 years of trying to get in (2 time loser then 2 time deferred auto-entry – first by a fire that canceled the race, second by the race splitting up the two time losers into two years) – I’ve read his race report years ago and loved that a flatlander like me can go conquer those mountains. Hanging out before bedtime we lamented how poor our training was coming into this race knowing it was likely to be a long race. Tent sleeping turned out to be not so restful – brain just wouldn’t turn off – normal pre-race jitters I guess.

Up about 45 minutes before race time (a 30 second commute to the startline is just sweet!) – get all my stuff organized – lots of gear decisions to make – what to wear, what to carry, what to have available on each loop.
Having the tent right on the course made the nice opportunity for a quick stop by the tent to grab whatever I needed on each loop rather than using the races drop area packed with a hundred other peoples bags. Head over with about 5 minutes to spare – find a portajohn – no line – amazing – then off to the startline.

The Race:

The 5am start had about 100 runners, another wave for the 50k started at 6 and another wave for a 25k at 7 and then a 10k too. Off we go into the dark headlights a shining. Everyone trots off pretty slow and I find myself following the leader before we get to the trailhead a hundred yards or so into the race. Last year’s 4th place winner Chris Robbins cautioned me to not start too slow and get stuck behind people too slow as passing is difficult on the single track trail so I don’t mind being towards the front of the pack. 1st place guy is running a little too hot so I ease off and have a pack of 3-4 bunched up behind me for the first mile or so. A glance at the heartrate up over 150 and I decide to cool it down a bit and eventually my headphones get caught on a branch making me pull over and let the bunch past me – I latch on the back of them and chill for a while – I’m finding either front or back or alone to be the preferred positions in running – so many ankle twisters to avoid on the trail I gotta have enough trail in front of me to spot them and plan my steps accordingly. On the Ipod I’ve got downloaded a bunch of podcasts from Ultrarunnerpodcasts.com – these are fun to listen to interviews with an assortment of people in the Ultra community – racing stories or interesting topics – they’re a great way to pass the time. One of the podcasts was a nutritionist who’s husband (Paul Terranova) had just done what’s called the Grand Slam (4x100 milers) and added a Kona Ironman at the back-end just to add a little extra - the first ever Grand Kona Slam – as it happens that guy I come to find out later was in this little Hells Hills race – I’m pretty sure he was the guy who pulled away at the start – he won the race in 6:54 - impressive. Anyway I’m just plodding along maintaining pace and actually feeling pleasantly chilly in this low 50s pre-sunrise morning – but I could feel the humidity too as the sweat wasn’t doing much evaporating. I’m carrying two duct tape handled bottles and I’m focusing on getting my hydration and fueling with my watch beeping every 4 minutes to take a couple oz swig. The darkness seems to go on forever, the miles are clicking by slowly, occasionally someone new overtakes me from behind, finally there’s enough light I can take off the headlight that’s starting to give me a head-ache – felt so nice to be rid of that thing. In the final couple miles of the first lap there’s a little black diamond section of the course called the Grind followed by the Wall – steep down then ups that I know there is no way I could have navigated on a Mountain bike (I can black diamond ski – but I’m not ready for the mountain bike) – the Wall did that quick drop/climb three time in quick repeats – I was already dreading this for the third lap – quads were already complaining from just the first 15 miles of rollers. Anyway – keep jogging the last mile after that and do a quick stop by the tent to swap out/refill bottles – fortunately I didn’t have an inch of mud on my shoes as I’d feared so didn’t need a shoe change (and Ryan didn’t have to clean them). I’m at the back end of the range I told Ryan – 7:30-7:45ish – so he’s out expecting me and cheers me on for another lap – it was really nice to see him out there. Off I go for lap 2.

Lap 1 completed – 2:45ish.

Much of the same as I head off – I keep the trotting along through the rollers and twists and turns – this would really be a fun place to mountain bike – all these rocks and roots would be fun to bounce around on the bike – on foot it kept my eyes glued to the trails. Two main lessons learned from the 50k incident – 1) Eyewear – bifocal glasses are not proper trail running glasses as they leave blurry trail through the bottom half of the glasses – for this race I used contacts that fix the far away and no glasses – trail was perfectly clear – all of it – my arm was just a little too short to see my watch clearly :). 2) Eyes stay on the trail – certain pleasantries on the trail such as making eye contact with passersby with a little smile and a wave – or watching their cute little dogs – are dangerous things to do – better to be just a little less nice and keep looking at the ground in front of me. These corrections seemed to serve me well – although there was the occasional footfall with a slight slip left or right – not even once did one get to the point of even the slightest sprain’ish feeling – contrast with the 50k there were 3-4 sprain’ish kinda steps prior to the actual big one that snapped the fibula – a nice confidence boost to see I can in fact run trails without twisting my ankle. Anyway about ½ way through the second lap I cross the mental barrier to realize I gotta start accepting that I’m going to have occasional walking breaks in this race – I made it through my last 50M without any but I’m just not in as good a shape, this course is much harder and the weather is warmer than that race. The leg soreness and dehydration level was just starting to catch up to me – and I’m trying to find peace with the knowledge I’m only ½ way through this race. I make the best maintain much more jogging than walking especially on the less technical portions of the trails. I start grabbing a few extra snacks at the aid stations and filling my water bottle a little more than the first lap and gut it out. In the last couple months of training I did a lot of tracking before and after workout weights and I’m becoming more and more convinced my limiter in these longer races is not my fitness level or even my fueling ability – it’s all about water balance for me. I’m losing a pound every 2.5-3 miles of running and I can only drink about 1.5 pounds per hour so anything faster than 4.5 miles/hr on a cool day or 4 miles/hr on a warmer day – or maybe slower considering the extra energy burn on trails vs road - and I’m losing weight. Towards the end of the second loop I check my pee color and confirm I’m pretty dehydrated already. I’d estimate I drank ~7 lbs or nearly a gallon the first two laps but my weight was probably still down 6-7 pounds – about how I feel after a dozen miles in sweats. I really just can’t function well much lower than that. I finish the second lap around 10am again towards the back end of the estimate I’d given Ryan pre-race. I spend a little extra time before I set off for the third lap – decide to switch to the camelback instead of the two bottle system so I could maximize how much I drank so spend some time filling that up pouring in a few water bottle. My son’s asks – “do you have to finish?” – I think he’s pretty bored:). “Yes – I do – but expect it will be a while – say 3:30 ish” – I’m not going to walk away from today without my lottery qualifier sub11 hours – I could nearly walk all the of last lap and still get that so I just needed to stay hydrated and do what I could for the last lap.

Lap 2 completed – 3:25ish including the 8-9 minute break at the tent.

Ok so I’m watching the time now – 16 miles to go – 11:10 pm on my watch and I gotta be done by 4 pm to get my sub11 hrs – it’s not a good sign when you start figuring out how slow you can go – the whole competitive side of me was gone – this was just about getting it done. I start setting time goals – first was to knock down the first 4 miles before noon – that would leave 20 minutes per mile for the last 12 to be done in the remaining 4 hours. I jog the more run able portions of the trail and walk most of the uphills or highly technical portions of the trails – I don’t quite achieve my goal but rather I seem to be in a rhythm to get 14-15ish minutes/mile and knock down those first 4 a little before 12:10 pm. I try to maintain that tempo and after a couple more miles I cross over the point where I could truly walk the rest of the race at 20 minutes per mile and get my sub11. That seemed like a major milestone – but I know anything can still happen so I want to start banking some cushion and keep that ~15 mpm’ish tempo – as pathetically slow as that sounds – it sure seemed harder than it sounds at the time – continuing to walk the climbs and jog/trot along the flatter portions or low grade descents and drinking all I can with sweet snacks along the way. Even walking – that black diamond portion was still killer on the quads but I survived and plodded my way until all the miles were done. I come by the tent for the final time – toss by camel back and other stuff then head off to the finish – I motivate my son to beat me to the finishline by giving him the mission of taking a finishing photo – he runs MUCH faster than I and beats me by a bunch and executes his duty snapping a pic.

Lap 3 completed – 4:00ish
Total Time – 10:10ish. 21st place/17th Male.

Finishlines are magical things – to be able to stop and sit down – even go back to the tent and lay down knowing the long long long task of the day is done – love it. After lazing around for a bit I start watching for Robert and Sandy and they eventually come trotting along both before the clock flipped over to 11. We waddle around for a while lamenting the tortures of the day – results and training pretty well aligned for each of us. I make the comment at one point that I’d still take a day like this over most days doing much of anything else and they were quick to categorically disagree – I guess after you’ve done dozens and dozens of these things the sucky days just plain suck – I can relate to that in marathons but for Ultras I’m not quite there yet – there were enough silver linings for this race I could still on balance feel good about it.

My silver linings in priority order:
1) No injuries, sprains or broken bones
2) Western States qualifier for the next lottery in November completed – takes the pressure off having to get into Vermont 100M (I still might try)
3) No getting sick – I’m now 3 out of 6 ultra events (2xironman, 3x50 milers and 1x50k) not getting sick
4) I’m guessing I won’t see much of a fitness regret from this race – after Rocky Raccoon 50 which was the only 1 out of 6 I felt like I half way nailed – my fitness dropped and it took months to get back to where I was pre-race. Aside from normal post race waddles and difficulty with going down stairs – I’m expecting within a couple weeks I’ll be continuing the progression I was seeing through February/March.
5) I learned a bunch such as I in fact CAN run trails without getting hurt – and I’m better zeroing in on the water balancing constraints so I can learn to work within and set my expectations within that.

Well I think that’s enough for this Race Report – I’m sore still but kinda wanna go for a little run again – if only it didn’t hurt so much – maybe another day or two :).