Monday, March 31, 2014

4 MPH Challenge Race Report 2014

The 4 MPH Challenge is a race that is a little different.  It takes place on a six mile trail loop near Whiskeytown Lake in Northern California.  Every 1.5 hours the race starts over again.  If you make it back to the start line within 1.5 hours you have the privilege of choosing to go back out again for another six mile loop.  Every loop you switch directions.  This means you have to average at least 4 mph to stay in the race.  The winner is the last person to complete a loop at faster than 4 mph.  I would divide the course into two halves.  On one half it is a pretty flat well groomed trail.  The other half is hilly, no big hills, but plenty of short, steep stuff- maybe 700 ft of climbing cumulative.  The hilly part has some rocky and rooty footing that us spoiled here in the bay area with our manicured trail systems would consider "technical".  This is not a race of the legs, but a race for the head.  I doubt that young speedsters would gain any advantage at this race, instead, it is the tough veterans that seem to come out on top.

When I showed up to work today (Monday after the race), I was approached by a coworker who inquired about my weekend adventure, spotting the tell tale signs of swollen feet in sandals and old man walking gate.  I contemplated his curiosity for a while, trying to figure out what details this man might find interesting.  I could just tell him that I ran an ultramarathon on some trails in NorCal.  But that doesn't really paint a worthy picture for his imagination.  So I thought I might try and relate my experience in terms that he was familiar with.  Knowing that this person had been on a couple of four mile hikes at Rancho, he no doubt was familiar with the concept of a trail, but again, that just wouldn't do it right.  So I thought of this story:

Imagine you just bought a bunch of groceries and loaded up your car and then got ready to drive home but then discovered you left your keys at home.  You then decide to walk six miles back to home to get your keys. You step out of your car and immediately submerge your foot in a shin high puddle that extends 50 ft to the curb.  Well, the feet are already wet, so you just hoof it over to the curb.  You then continue to walk along the sidewalks with your squishy shoes and cold feet and periodically encounter another impassible puddle with varying depths of ankle to shin high cold, dirty water and you grudgingly trudge through.  At some point you realize you are being followed.  You look back and see a man with a black cloak and a scythe.  You try and see his face but there is only darkness under the hood.  This alarms you and you decide to pick up your pace to put some distance between you and the scary man.  Strangely this man is moving at exactly 4 mph.  So you decide you have to run.  Now you reach some hills.  You know, the sort of hills you see in San Francisco with the steps built into the sidewalks.  Oh well, move fast!  Uh oh, looks like someone was doing some construction up ahead and took a jack-hammer to the sidewalk.  You stumble up and down the hills with the constant thought that the THING is after you.  You are happy that there aren't as many giant puddles to wade through though and your feet and shoes are actually feeling a little normal again, but then you reach another strange obstacle.  A fire hydrant has been barreled over and there is a stream of water to wade through.  Insane.  But then you encounter more of these, they seem almost constant.  You crest the last hill and then instead of seeing your house, you see the grocery store with your car sitting in the middle of the puddle.  Oh well, you are getting hungry so you might as well go sit down for a while and eat some of those groceries, and you know that you've put a good ten minutes on the DARKNESS, so you sit in the car and collect yourself.  But then before you know it you spot the DANGER in the distance and jump out of the car, straight back into the puddle to try and reach your house and get away from the THING.  You repeat this process for twelve hours, over and over gain, running from the SCARY man, trudging through the puddles, stumbling on the hills, receiving respite at the car.  But then the sun is going down.  So you reach into the glove compartment in your vehicle to retrieve the flashlight and continue on into the night.  This is a even more frightening prospect, being chased through the darkness with the SCYTHE guy after you.  You reach the car 19.5 hours and 78 miles into this shaking experience and discover your keys in the ignition.  You thank god and then drive home.

I could have told my coworker this story.  But instead I just said that I ran an ultra-marathon.  It was fun.  Probably the right call.

Anyways, here is how it went down:

I got off of work early on friday and drove north.  I knew there was going to be some rain, but I didn't really see much on the way.  When I got there I picked an idilic spot for my abode and was all setup in no time.  Then I pulled up a chair to Matt's firepit (pic below) and hung with the guys until we all hit the sack for an early bedtime.  It was raining a little off and on before I hit the sack.

One of the first to set up their tent, pretty sweet spot, huh?  I finally got to test whether this super light could do the job.  Five inches of rain that night in a torrential NorCal downpour, totally dry, yeah baby!

Matt, race director Mark, and Cody.  Matt showed me how to roll.  He had a sweet full suspension mountain bike that he strapped to the top of his wrangler while pulling a trailer that contained his extensive camping equipment!
A few times during the night I awoke to some pretty fierce-some pounding on my little tent.  It was loud, but rhythmic, so I was able to go back to sleep, but in the back of my mind I was wondering what Saturday was going to turn out like.  Turns out the area got about five inches of rain that night.  Pretty insane.  That morning there was water everywhere (except for in my tent-yay).  I figured it was going to be a sloppy day, but didn't really know what was coming.

Race morning, getting ready to go.
I pinned on my number and Mark Swanson, the race director, already said go!  I was running a little behind but was not hurried at all.  There was no reason, just four miles per hour, how hard can that be? So I started in last place and just kind of hung with the group.  The footing was surprisingly stable.  The mud was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be.  Maybe that was because of the clayish soil, but this had a downside as well.  The soil doesn't drain.  The water just sat on top.  The trail that was nicknamed "the canal" was a V-shaped flat trail that could be mistaken for a stream at times, small ponds at other locations, or a nice well groomed foot-path.  The giant puddles were anywhere from ankle deep to mid shin.  It was tough to run through, and at some point, most runners just slogged through the puddles resigned to not burn any extra energy fighting the inertia of the water.  You would emerge on the other side of one of these puddles and squish, squish, squish the water out of your shoes, feet and lower limbs getting pretty cold at times.  There was a lot of speculation about what all of the water logged running would do to us long term, but at the time it didn't seem to bad, just really annoying.
The vegetation looks a lot different here.  It is pretty.
 I really like the scenery from these trails.  I thought it was an aesthetic, well picked loop for this race that had a little bit of everything.  It had some flats you could cruise, some rocky, rooty, steep stuff to keep things interesting, views, it was just a really nice loop.  There were no big climbs, but a lot of ups and downs in the hilly section.  I would estimate maybe 700 ft of climbing cumulative per loop.  The first laps of the race are really chill because everyone is just cruising, talking, taking in the experience.  It is more like a club fun run than a race.  But the fact is, the early stages are one of the important parts of this race.  You have to be careful to keep a steady pace, don't let your heart rate spike for some ambitious, ambiguous inter race goal.  Keep your eyes on the prize... long term baby!  The things you do when you come in from your loop are critically important as well.  You have to take care of yourself, get some calories in, get the stress off of your legs, make sure your feet are ok, etc.  I wasn't sure about the whole sitting during a race thing because I thought you would just get tight and that would spell more trouble than it was worth.  Instead what I found was that taking the stress off of the legs for 10 minutes worked wonders.  Yes, you will be tight for a while when you get back up.  It hurts when you get back up.  But take your time and slowly get those legs moving again, don't rush anything, and you will warm back into it.  How can I tell that it actually helped?  The first half of whatever lap we were on was always considerably easier than the second half.  I attribute this to the sitting time.

Some of the trails and some of the views.
A little vid to try and capture the vib:

4 mph means you can enjoy this stuff a little more, instead of push, push, push.

Example of a stream, I mean trail, I mean stream, whatever.  We ran through the middle of it.  This was only an ankle deep affair.  I don't even have pictures of the deep ones.

Guy Herr, representin the club!  It was cool to have another Quicksilver runner there and was the first time I meant Guy.  He was putting in some good laps too, I believe he was rollin with the front-runners most of the day...Pretty sweet setup at his truck.

Some weather rollin in, not too bad...
 One of my favorite aspects of this race was the time between loops.  It is just a great feeling to come rolling down that last hill into camp, knowing that you are going to sit down, grab some grub, and chill.  It was also a blast yucking it up with the other runners.  Battle stories abound.  Various falls, look at blood coming from here, what about those puddles?  The trash talking is rampant.  How are you feeling?  I'm feeling great!  Look, my feet don't even have blisters!  It's all good banter when you can kick the legs up for just a little bit and chow down on some yummy stuff.

There was a downside to the downtime for me.  I was eating way too much for what my body could actually process and it resulted in some pretty uncomfortable GI distress for several laps in the middle of the day.  I was dealing with diarrhea at the end of every lap and figured out what I was doing wrong.  I cut back on the food intake, kept emptying the system, and then just tried to even things out.  Eventually the pain subsided, and a pretty constant thirst came on even though it was cool and overcast.  I suppose that was my bodies way of saying it was dehydrated from all of the loose stools, so I just sipped water through the next laps and was finally feeling really good just as dinner was being served.  As you get closer to sundown, Mark starts taking orders from the runner for what kind of warm thing they want cooked for when they roll in next lap: soup, grilled cheese, quesadilla, etc.  It was great, and basically for the rest of the race I would eat whatever I ordered, drink some coconut water, and be good to go, that was the only calories I was getting in at that point.

This is Tina Ure. She stands out in my mind because she took a header straight into one of the deep puddles, I can't believe she didn't drown!

My chair has the yellow jacket on it.  That is Chuck and Steve in the corner.
The race strategies seemed to be all over the place.  There were people putting in some fast laps in the 65 to 70 minute range and getting long breaks. I was averaging about 75 minutes a lap all day, loving my 15 minute break.  And there were some coming in around 80 minutes, like last year's winner Aaron who racked up 90 miles for the W.  It was hard to tell who was doing it right.  But I think it is telling that the final four did not put in too many fast miles at the beginning.  Actually I'm not sure what Andy was doing, but he was moving pretty good all day up until it seemed that fatigue got him after 60.  It was fun to meet and run with Chuck.  We were set up next to each other in the recovery tent, purely on circumstance, and we were running pretty consistent laps together too.  Not together all of the time, we had different paces at different places on the loop, but it always seemed that we would converge on the finish line.  He kept telling: One more lap!

As the race went on, the numbers started to dwindle.  The 18 milers were done a long time ago, the 36 milers (affectionately known as the "day campers") are finishing up.  Some of the runners in the unlimited division are talking about how they need to save themselves for this or that race, how this is just a training run, how their feet hurt, etc.  And you start to get a glimpse of really who is going for top dog.  A lot of runners made it to the 12 hour mark, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. but then people had to get out their flashlights, and it seemed like a lot of people didn't really look forward to the thought of continuing into the night.

Getting ready for another lap!
 Then after lap 9 there were only four of us willing to continue on.  Andy, Chuck, Aaron and I went out for lap 10.  I was consistently pumping out 75s and by this time was finishing my laps clearly in front of the other guys.  It seemed that maybe they were slowing down a bit, or maybe conserving energy for the long haul, I couldn't tell.  I was flying high though.  I was having a blast running by myself through the night on the trails and feeling good!  I rolled in after mile 66 and got my coat and sat by the fire with some chicken soup.  Andy rolled in next and promptly excused himself from any further torture.  Chuck and Aaron rolled in with maybe 4-5 minutes to spare and this was where Aaron called it a day as well.  Chuck said:  One more lap!  So it was.  I thought he was done though, but he got on a new pair of shoes and was like a new man.  So we went out again.  I got back in 75 and he got back with about 5 minutes to spare again.  This time he had some gear issues and really didn't have time to take care of himself, but he said:  One more lap!  Seriously?  He got down in a sprinters stance, Mark said go, and he sprinted off of the line, for three steps and then we walked together.  I slowed a little on this lap and finished in 78, but I fully expected that Chuck might make it as well, so I got all of my stuff ready for the next lap.  I also knew there was a good chance that was it.  Chuck ended up timing out on the lap, so I officially won the 4 mph challenge.  I was sitting by the fire with my coat and quesadilla and was starting to go hypothermic and decided I better get in the sleeping bag as soon as possible (I've been there, done that after various ultra experiences).  I meant up with Chuck the next morning and found out that as soon as he knew he was going to time out he decided to walk it in.  So he came in about 50 minutes past time.  Thing was that he wasn't moving fast enough to keep his core temp up, so he was going hypothermic out there, but he somehow kept it together and made it back on his own power and then warmed up in his vehicle.  I was impressed how he didn't just stop after mile 72 when maybe in his heart of hearts he didn't think he was going to make it in time, he was going to give it his best shot no matter the consequence.  It took some real guts.

I had an enjoyable experience and want to give kudos to Mark Swanson and the volunteers for putting on a really unique and fun experience for ultra-runners.

People around the campfire when I rolled in from lap whatever.  Now this is torture... when you know you could stop and join by the campfire, but noooo, you have to keep going out for another lap through the cold puddles!

My trophy collection...


  1. Those living ones are precious ! The Blue one sounds like torture ! I admire your sticktoitiveness.


    1. Sticktoitiveness? Actually I think it has something to do with lack of common sense, but maybe they are related...

  2. Congrats on the win! Sounds like a fun challenge! I'll have to try it someday!

    1. Yes, yes, you will have to try it!

  3. How would one get their car to the grocery store without keys?

    1. You could do it with a tow truck. Or maybe one of those heavy lift helicopters...

    2. Pushed it to the store for training, of course. ;)

    3. How about you lost your key in the store and had the spare key at home?

  4. Great report! "Toby" is actually Cody (check out his great video-

    The woman who fell is Tina Ure.

  5. Why didn't you keep going and try to beat the course record? =)

    1. It takes a crazy person to trudge that stuff for over 90 miles!

  6. This all sounds like a terrible nightmare. Remind me to never do this race. But big congrats on the win Jeremy!

    1. Thanks John. Every ultra is a nightmare, isn't that why we do them?

  7. Just found this report as I'm looking at getting up there in 2015 if the schedule allows. Sounds just like I pictured it in my head.