I think it would be too easy to blame the warmer than average weather for what happened on Saturday. The fact of the matter is that we are humans and as humans we have the incredible capacity for looking into the future and planning for a desired outcome. Experience plays a key role in the ability to create a realistic plan and execute. This was my first 100 mile race attempt and I was not prepared. I think I had all of my logistics figured out, and I believe I was physically ready to run 100 miles through the mountains. Where I fell short was anticipating how the warm temps would affect my race and adjusting accordingly.
I would split up the logistic planning for a hundred mile race into four different areas which I will discuss next:
- Travel and Lodging. Tahoe is a nice 4 hour drive from where we live, but it is around 7000 ft. The race alternates between 7000 and 9000 ft, so being prepared for the altitude is part of the equation. Personally the altitude does not seem to affect me too bad in terms of headaches, quality of sleep, general fatigue, etc. I can tell the effects of the lower oxygen available to fuel the running, but altitude sickness symptoms have not been an issue for me. Even so, it made sense to travel to Tahoe on a Thursday, get two good nights of rest before the race at altitude, and get some relaxation in the day before the race (not having to travel on Friday is nice). I also planned to take it easy after the race as I had no idea how my body would react to the stress, so I planned on traveling back on Monday. We rented a cabin on the east side of South Lake Tahoe. In my opinion, this is a prime location for TRT. It is half an hour from Carson City (the host city and where you pickup your race packet), 13 minutes to Spooner Lake (start and finish of the race), half an hour from Diamond Peak Lodge (a key aid station for pacing or crews), and a cool four hours from our house in Sunnyvale. Joanne's brother Ben traveled with us and helped us out with the kids while preparing and executing the race plan. The cabin was part of a complex that shared recreational facilities including a pool and spa, a huge hit with the kids and made it into a fantastic family vacation.
- Drop Bags (optional). Drop bags consist of the bags that the runner wants delivered to various aid stations that contain items to aid in race completion. The bags may contain jackets, lights, special food and drinks, extra socks, shoes, etc. Usually there are only a selection of the aid stations that drop bags may be delivered to, so the runner has to plan accordingly with what needs to be in which bags to support some part of the race. For instance, you would want to have a flashlight in the bag that precedes sunset in the race. Which aid station this is depends on your pace too, so you would have to potentially have flashlights in several bags, or just decide to pick it up and carry it with you for some daylight hours. I had three drop bags. One for the finish line/half way point. This bag had sweats for post race, extra shoes and socks to change into if my feet were getting sloppy half way through the race, and some other "extras" just in case. I then had a bag at Hobart, which you run through 4 different times in the race, and a key drop bag at Tunnel Creek, which is pretty much the most important aid station where the hundred mile runner goes through SIX times. Tunnel Creek is where I put most of my night-time gear and my trekking poles. The plan was to run the first twelve miles and then pick up the poles to help me through the rest of the race. In retrospect, I still like this plan.
- Crew (optional). Joanne was my crew. Crew is a person or people that meet the runner at various aid stations with gear and/or assistance to help the runner complete the run. They may carry the equivalent of a drop bag to meet the runner's random or planned needs. They can also do things such a ice the runner down, tend to the runners feet (blister management, sock/shoe changes, etc), basically tend to whatever the runner needs at that point in time. Nominally Joanne was to meet me at Diamond Peak #1, half way, Diamond Peak #2, and finish. She had my extras in a bag, and some treats, just in case (like popsicles). She would also be the one delivering the useless corpse to bed after the race was over. Ben played a key role in Joanne's ability to act as my crew. He was instrumental in supervising the children.
- Pacer (optional). Marc was my pacer. A pacer is someone who runs with the racer through some prescribed distance (in Marc's case he was going to pace me fifty miles from halfway to the finish). The pacer is there for safety first. They make sure that the racer does not veer off course, tries to keep them from getting hurt, etc. They are key when a racer might be getting a little loopy from exhaustion. They are not allowed to carry anything for the racer or assist in any physical way. They are also fantastic for motivation. They can be the cool head when the exhausted head starts having doubts, or when the exhausted head starts making decisions that are counter-productive to the race goal. I actually could talk about the pacers role in a hundred mile race for a long time as I have picked up a few things from pacing runners in four different hundred milers by now, but I am just going to say that Marc was going to serve an instrumental purpose in getting me to the finish line.
I didn't really have a plan other than to run my own race at a pace that I was comfortable with. You see, I am a "run by feel" type of person. I don't wear a watch. I don't plan splits. I don't believe in some sort of prescribed path to get me to the finish line. I like to be flexible, and listen to my body as much as possible. I like "be in the moment", and I think I am generally pretty good with this approach. I would say the "run by feel" approach is most successfully executed when the following conditions are present for race day:
- The environment of the race is sufficiently similar to the environment when encountered during training. This cannot be overstated. How can you "run by feel" if you have never felt it before? In this particular race, the combination of heat, elevation, and terrain created a trifecta of variables that were not sufficiently simulated in my training. There is only so much you can do about this. Running in the "perfect" weather of the San Francisco Bay area can actually be a detriment to a runner who is preparing for a race "somewhere else".
- "Run by feel" requires a certain amount of experience to successfully implement. What I mean by that is that you need to have a pretty good idea of what it "feels" like to run a hundred miles. You have to know that this is different than running a 50k, or a 50 miler, you need to re-calibrate the "feel-ometer". This is just another way to say that you need to know how to pace yourself.
- You need to be tuned into what your body is telling you. If it is getting over-heated, you need to adjust, if it is getting hungry, eat, if thirsty, drink, etc. This sounds all so easy, but in practice, it is so much harder to implement in an optimal way for a desired outcome. But this is something that is learned through experience and through "paying attention". I would say that most runners don't pay attention. They are busy with their i-pods, daydreaming (not that there is anything wrong with this-probably my achilles heal though), worrying about things outside of their control. I think at TRT I got caught up in the race a little bit and did not listen enough. I was too preoccupied with what the other runners were doing, with how much time I was fiddling around at the aid stations, all kinds of "disturbances" that were obstacles to my listening. It is no mistake that the tougher (more on the outside of the bell-curve) the conditions become for a race, the more the older (more experienced) runners tend to capitalize. They just know what to do.
How the Race Played Out:
I started out at the end of the top 25% of the field. It was a nice, easy pace, with lots of hiking in the first miles which included the climb up to the first aid station, Hobart. I never turned on my low-power LED headlamp which I had "just in case". It was a pretty easy start to the day. I started to slowly pass people, mostly on the downhills which I did run assertively, as usual. I caught up to Amy Burton, the top female competitor from our club, Quicksilver, right before Hobart. I dropped my headlamp in my drop bag and then picked up my hat for the day. This hat was going to be instrumental in managing the heat. I was planning on putting ice in it at every opportunity I got, so that it could cool my head and melt down my neck. John Burton (Amy's husband, who I paced at TRT last year), advised me on this method, and I took it to heart (mostly out of desperation). As I started out of Hobart, I continued what I thought of as a conservative beginning pace. After cresting the climb and starting on the downhill to Tunnel Creek #1, I started to do my thing on the downhills, what I thought of as a pedestrian downhill pace was passing a lot of racers, but this is not abnormal for me. Perhaps I was burning out my quads pre-maturely, but then again, I have done this so many times before that there is no way that that was my downfall, or so I think. I caught up with Amy on this section and passed her going into Tunnel Creek. This is where I picked up my poles and iced up for the first time in the race. In addition to the ice in the hat I implemented a brand new tactic for me which included rolling up ice in a handkerchief and tying it around my neck. This worked like a charm and did double-duty for me, protecting my exposed neck from the sun and providing a key cooling effect over high capacity blood vessels.
The "Red-House Loop" was next. This loop contains a precipitous drop followed by a good climb, aid station at the "Red-House" and then a flat section, then a tough climb up to Tunnel Creek. In retrospect I believe I pushed this section a little too hard. While it was still relatively cool because the sun was not up high yet, I decided to try and capitalize before the real heat set in. I ran the flat section and then climbed aggressively up to Tunnel Creek. This took a lot out of me and I think I would have been better served if I had been more conservative on this climb. I got into Tunnel Creek #2 and to my surprise they asked for the first weigh in for the race at mile 17.2. The day before they weight you in to get your baseline weight and then write numbers on a waterproof wristband that represent 5 to 10% deviation from the baseline. They give warnings and even make you sit out if your weight is too far off of baseline. My baseline weight was 198 pounds. I remember the guy at the scale saying something to the effect of me being a "big guy". Intrigued, I asked him if that was a bad thing. He mentioned something about someone weighing in at 220 and being pessimistic about his chances. The whole thing seemed rather odd to me, but whatever. At Tunnel Creek #2 I weighed in at 189, almost 10 pounds down. The lady turned to the med person and was about to tell me to hang on a second. Before any more attention was brought on I quickly sneaked away, grabbed some watermelon, took my pack and ran off. My mind instantly started racing. Was I already sabotaging my race? I was having visions of being over 10% down by Diamond Peak and them pulling me from the race. I thought, what a silly way to fail. What the heck was going on. So I throttled back a bit and tried to take it easy. But then it got hot. I was doing a lot of hiking and I am sure I got passed a few times. I reached the Bull Run aid station, topped off on water, and then finished off the last of the climb before the nice four mile descent to Diamond Peak. I was drinking a lot and trying to manage things, but how can you take the downhills easy? I just ran. And then I rolled into Diamond Peak, feeling pretty good actually. John Burton was there, waiting for Amy. I asked him if Amy already made it through, but she was not there yet and he told me of some guys that were just ahead of me. I weighed in at 188, only 1 pound down from 13 miles ago and was pretty happy. I had told Joanne that I would be at Diamond Peak Lodge around 11:30. That is what pace I thought I would be running with all of the hiking that I was doing. But to my surprise, the clock at the aid station read 10:58. And Joanne wasn't there yet. I had mixed feelings. I was happy to be ahead of pace, especially with how easy things were feeling, but I was bummed about missing Joanne at the aid station. I didn't even think of the consequences of perhaps opening up the race a little too fast. I had a fantastic aid station stop, including four cups of ensure smoothies that were just heaven, all of the watermelon, cantaloupe, and boiled potatoes I could down, and refilled all of my ice. Then a guy with a hose sprayed me off, and I was feeling great. Ready to tackle the big climb.
The Diamond Peak climb is the toughest part of the TRT race. It is an exposed, sandy, steep trail that just seems to go on forever. I started up it with the vigor that I climbed up from Red House, fully expecting to hike right up and over. About a quarter of the way up I noticed my legs starting to cramp up. I thought to myself: "no way", there is no way that I am cramping just "walking" up a trail. I shortened my stride, let off the throttle a little bit and tried to work through it. It wasn't getting better. When I got about a third of the way up I had to try and stretch things out because my muscles were starting to seize up on me. As soon as I found a shady spot with a rock to prop myself on I started trying some stretches. Then the body really rebelled. Everything just tensed up on me and I ended up on the ground writhing in agony, attempting to wait out the cramping legs until I could relax and try to get to some place where I could even think about walking again. I remember at one point, just sitting there, and my leg went straight, and all of my muscles on my right leg contracted at once, and I had no control. I thought my muscles were going to break my leg. I forced myself up, off the ground, and then worked some self message until I could bend my leg again. I then found a position that was somewhat ok, only a few minutes after though I would be on the ground again in agony. I repeated this dance for over half an hour. Runners would pass by with knowing looks on their faces, trying to offer me tips, salt-tabs, anything to help me out. But it was a lost cause. I remember Amy stopping by for a considerable moment to try and talk me through it, but I assured her I would be ok and told her to get moving again. At some point a lady was walking back down the trail because she had decided to drop out of the race. She was having stomach issues and couldn't keep anything down and dreaded the thought of trying to finish the thing. She worked with me to get me on my feet and somehow coaxed me to walk down back to diamond peak lodge with her. There was no way I could continue up the mountain. As I was walking down the trail with her, passing all of the runners still continuing up the mountain and having to answer all of their questions about why we were going the wrong way, I decided I was starting to feel better. I thought to myself, this is silly, I am walking down the mountain, I can walk right up it too. So I turned around and took one step up the trail and my legs seized on me again. I quickly turned back around and somehow stumbled down the trail back to Diamond Peak Lodge. This must be where the officials recorded my drop, since that is what it looks like in ultralink.net that was reporting runners whereabouts. I did not quit yet though and walked over to the med people and tried to get some advice about how to proceed. My mind was willing, my energy levels were high, I wanted to go. But my legs were not coopering. The med people gave me some Tums, which they thought the calcium would help. I hung around in air conditioning for a while and ate and drank some more and then found Gary Saxton, another Quicksilver teammate who was running the 50 miler that was taking a break before the big climb. We regrouped together and then headed out. On our way out we ran into Jim Magill, yet another Quicksilver guy and we tackled the monster together. After the cool down and probably balancing out my electrolytes just a little my legs were now letting me take little steps up the mountain. It was a fight for sure. It is a pretty comical sight actually. We got to a point where we were hiking with a rather large group of racers and everytime we came to some shady spot up the trail we would all stop and catch our breath. What a race! People taking tiny little steps up a mountain and then just stopping every once in a while. It took forever to get up and over.
Once we got back to Bull Run #2 though I thought maybe, just maybe I could get this thing back. All I had to do was to keep moving and wait out the heat of the day. It is pretty much a nice downhill from Bull Run to Tunnel Creek #3, and I tried to run again, but was met with dead legs that wanted to tighten up on me every time I tried to get some bounce out of them. So walking it was. I can do that though, or so I thought. Ever since I left Diamond Peak Lodge for the second time it seemed my electrolytes were getting more and more out of whack, and I was suffering again about a mile until Tunnel Creek. I got within a quarter mile of the aid station and suddenly felt like throwing up. This was a completely new sensation. I had never had it before and I had to back off once again. It was agony stumbling into Tunnel Creek, but as soon as I had arrived I felt a sense of relief, probably because I saw an out to the pain. I still did not want to stop and tried to rally with some time in the shade and some ice and some food. But as soon as I got up I realized my legs were toast, I couldn't even stand upright. This is where I decided to drop and then received a ride down to the start where I met up with Joanne and then went back to the cabin to lick my wounds.
So, what did I learn?
Some runners, probably a lot of ultra-runners, consider DNFs shameful. To me, it is what it is. Every race is another data point for me. I hope to take each experience and build on top of it, allowing me to become a stronger competitor that knows how to approach a given race. I don't believe the heat was what did me in. Rather it was my inability to respect the conditions of the race and adjust my expectations and plans accordingly. Finally I have to give a shout out to all of those tough runners who completed the 100 mile race on Saturday-Sunday, including Amy who was F5 for the race! Everyone who finished gives me inspiration to continue taking on big challenges.