Friday, June 29, 2012

Conclusions from the Black Hills 100 - Fueling is Everything

Last Thursday, if you would have asked me the most important elements to succeed in a 100-mile race, I would have answered, in the following order:  First, you need to have an extremely high level of fitness that is targeted at the specific race you’re running; Second, you should have a smart pacing strategy; Third, you need a well-thought out race-day fueling plan, and then, on race day, you need to properly execute that plan.

After witnessing the Black Hills 100 on Saturday from lots of angles, I’ve changed my mind.  Now, I think fueling is the most critical element to success in a 100-mile race, even more so than fitness. I don’t know who said it, but ultramarathons truly are eating and drinking competitions, with a little exercise thrown in on the side.  The longer you go, the more true this becomes.  If you don’t eat and drink enough (because of neglect) or you can’t (because of an underlying health problem), it doesn’t matter how fit you are, you won’t finish.

It’s much easier to observe this when you’re watching a 100-mile race than when you’re running it.  When you’re running you are so into your own world you don’t think about why someone else may or may not be ahead of you.  But as the day goes on, and you see a runner who could run a 2:45 marathon get passed by a runner who probably couldn’t break 3:30, you start to question how it is happening. 

Last Saturday, there were probably 15-20 runners who had the fitness level to run under 24 hours on the Black Hills 100 course.  Problem was, only three of them finished the race.  At mile 17, there were at least two dozen runners who buzzed through the third aid station in under 3 hours.  All had finished the most uphill section of the course, and all were on pace for a sub-20 time.  They were running hard and they were jockeying for position.  All of them refilled their water supplies and headed out back on the trail in short order.  But I noticed that only two of them stopped to eat anything: The guy who won and the guy who got third (I didn’t notice the guy who got second).  The guy who eventually won downed three gels at the mile 17 aid station, chugged some water, and went about his way.  He was the only one who seemed to be concerned with fueling, instead of just drinking water. 

What’s more, the eventual winner was the only person who put ice in his hat to try to regulate his temperature before the heat got totally out of hand.

By the time the 29-mile aid station came around, half of the fast guys were already fried and had little hope of recovery.  A quick glance at these guys and it was obvious that they were serious runners who had logged lots of miles.  But, a few minutes later, less athletic, less fit athletes with far less ability came trotting through looking much fresher.  The ones that sought out not just water and ice, but also food, were the ones who didn’t wilt. 

I remember reading that when Geoff Roes made his huge push to catch Anton Krupicka at Western States 2010, he was eating 400 calories an hour.  Everyone focuses on the how fast he was running when he caught Anton, but few comment on how he was able to do that.  Those calories were probably the factor that enabled him to get there.  Meanwhile, the great Kilian Jornet has lost very few races of any kind, but at both Western States and Transvulcania, he collapsed with severe dehydration at the finish.   It would appear that just about the only times he’s ever lost in an ultra, the loss could be pinned on a poor nutrition and hydration strategy.

Proper fueling is also probably a big part of the difference between 2004 Matt Carpenter and 2005 Matt Carpenter.  It's not as if he wasn't fit in 2004.  But by race time in 2005, Carpenter knew the exact amount of calories he would eat, down the number of sips of fluid between aid station.  Talk about being dialed in to nutrition and hydration!

Conversely, 200-mile weeks and the greatest fitness level of his life weren’t enough to get Anton Krupicka to the finish at Leadville in 2009 or 2010, because he suffered from Giardia (medical issue) in 2009 and didn’t eat and drink enough in 2010. 

That doesn't look like fun.

As ultrarunners, it’s something we know intuitively, that you must eat and drink to finish.  But when the gun goes off and the adrenaline starts pumping, most of us think less about nutrition and hydration and much more about our pace, our place, our times, and how we feel.  But the most important thing we can do to help us achieve our place and time goals, and to feel better, is to eat and drink well.  

It is important not to extrapolate too much from a few anecdotal cases, but I left the Black Hills with one paramount lesson learned:  There’s only so much I can do to improve my fitness level between now and August 17th.  But there is one thing I can do that will have an enormous impact on my success or failure that day.  From now on, I will treat every long run – first and foremost -- as my weekly opportunity to practice eating 300-400 calories an hour, every hour, rather as a time to achieve some mileage, training, or fitness goal.

Fitness is important. But if you don’t eat and drink properly on race day, there’s no amount of fitness that will get you to the finish of a 100-mile race.    

Monday, June 25, 2012

Black Hills 100 - Pacing, Crewing, and Learning

I spent the weekend in South Dakota, where I was to crew and pace Stephen Young in his quest to conquer another 100-mile race, the Black Hills 100.  The weekend didn’t turn out exactly as planned for any of us, but it was still an amazing weekend.  I learned so much about running 100 miles, got a front-row seat to witness a course record being broken, and made some amazing new friends in the process.  I can't say enough about the experience. But I did draw up a decent summary of what went down.

1.    Stephen’s race

To put Stephen’s race in proper perspective, I think it’s critical to give a little background.  Jaime Yebra introduced us last summer at Leadville, where both of us were pacing other runners. Later, in the summer, Jaime, Stephen, and I ran a 27-mile big loop around the Indian Peaks.  It was a pleasure watching Stephen Young dance along the trails with effortlessness and grace. I immediately recognized that this guy was a natural.  He’s young, fit, and has enormous potential as a runner.  I spent that entire day dragging my butt up and down the trail while he ran without breaking a sweat.  Six days later, I ran my first sub-3 marathon, and Stephen was out of my league fitness-wise.  Two weeks later he proved it with a sixth-place finish at Wasatch. 

Fast forward eight months and Stephen posted on Facebook that he was looking for a crew and pacers at the Black Hills 100 this last weekend in South Dakota. I don’t work anymore, so I figured, why not. As Vonnegut said, “Invitations to travel are like dancing lessons from God.”  I knew it would be fun, and I figured I could learn a lot by watching someone with Stephen’s pedigree in action.

The two of us picked up Bryan Williams, another ultrarunner, and super cool guy, in Erie, Colorado drove up to South Dakota on the Friday.  We had great time swapping stories about ultrarunning and getting to know each other.  We’re all passionate about the sport and fairly new to it, so it was great just shooting the shit and getting to know each other.  Stephen told us that he had been diagnosed with some health problems associated with B12 deficiency and anemia, but that he had been feeling better lately.  He struggled in his last race at the Jemez 50, running a sub-par effort by his standards, but still finished in a respectable time, despite serious issues with nausea.

Stephen is a laid back dude when it comes to ultras.  He started his day out on Saturday with a handful of donuts and a double shot of espresso, and then we headed to the start.  The race began at 6 am, and Stephen went out conservatively, letting the leaders go out ahead, despite the fact that he was probably the best athlete in the field.

We first saw him at mile 17.  He came in about 2:50, and he was still plenty bouncy.  We asked him how he was doing, and the first thing he said was “it was hot.”  This was at 8:55 in the morning.  Hmmm…  Yeah, it was pretty warm, but it was about to get a whole lot hotter.  Not a real encouraging sign.  We traded out bladders in his pack and he went on his way without eating or drinking anything else.  It was a super quick transition.  In retrospect, probably too much so.

There was no crew access at the next aid, so we next saw Stephen at mile 29, Dalton lake.  The first 100 miler, fellow Coloradoan Jeremy Bradford, whom we had met before and we all ate dinner with the previous night, arrived at 11:05 am.  Two minutes later, he was out on the trail again, with a smile on his face and bounce in his step.

Stephen was three or four minutes behind Jeremy at 17.  Ten minutes passed. Then twenty. Then thirty.  Uh-oh.  This can’t be good.  Stephen’s too good a runner to fall that far behind Jeremy in 12 miles. Something is up. 

Finally, Stephen arrived around 11:45 am.  His body language was no bueno.  He was clearly overheated and hurting. We doused him with about twenty pounds of ice until he was literally shivering.  He said to me, “I’m really questioning the sagacity of going back out there.”  Hum.  He was hurting, and he was overheated, but 100 milers take a long time and it’s possible to turn things around.  Bryan and I had a chat and I said I don’t think we should let him quit. Bryan was even more adamant about it than I was. Fuck no, we’re not letting him quit yet.  After about 45 minutes, he got him out of the trail and back on the course.

Then, Stephen ran what was probably the fastest split of the day to the next station.  So fast, we nearly missed him. That was the good news.  But he’d puked up all the food we’d given him at the last station.  Bad news.  We repeated the process.  Ice, food, water. 

And then he did it again.  He caught a half a dozen runners going to the next station.  But he had puked up all the food we had given him.  Bad news.  But then he scarfed down a full grilled cheese sandwich.  Nice. He told us he was done with gels.  Ok.  So then we tossed some powdery mix to put in his bag.  And then he got up out of the chair and started jogging to the next aid.  Encouraging signs.  Despite puking a bunch of times, he was still catching other runners and working his way into the top ten.  If we could just figure out what he could eat, there was still plenty of opportunity to turn this around.

We went to the turnaround at mile 50 next.  I remember doing the math and thinking, if he keeps up the way he was running from 29 to 43, he could be back in the top five by the turnaround.  I jogged out to the trailhead about a half mile short of the aid station and waiting for him.  5th passed. 6th. 7th. 8th. 9th, 10th, 11.  Uh-oh.  12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th, all came into view, and I was pretty sure he was number 15.  I could see him shuffle a bit down the hill.  When I finally saw him clearly I could see he was carrying his pack.  Not good. He just shook his head. “I’m done,”  he said. 

He hadn’t kept anything down since mile 29.  With the 90-ish degree heat and no food, it was over.  It wasn’t a good idea to push him forward.  Any further progress would have been a risk to his health.  Stephen seemed at ease with his decision.  It was clear he had made the right call.

2.    Plan B

Once the decision had been made, I started to think about what I was to do for the rest of the day.  I had come out here, in part, to go on a 20-some mile run with Stephen during his race. Now that wasn’t going to happen.  Bryan quickly volunteered to pace Bill Geist, another runner we had met the night before, for the full 50.  Given the condition of most of the folks at the turnaround, I knew that pacing anyone from there would be a 13-20 hour death march.  It was amazing of Bryan to volunteer to for the task. But that didn’t sound like much fun to me. 

Selfishly, I wanted to run with Jeremy.  He was winning the race, so that sounded exciting.  Plus, I wanted to witness someone having the race of his life in full action mode.  And Jeremy was certainly doing that. 

I volunteered to drive Stephen back.  Right before we left, we picked up  Scott Dunlap of “A Trail Runner’s Blog” fame, who was also dropping at 50.  Scott had some major medical issues of his own (I’ll let him decide if he wants to share those details) with the world.  Scott’s an amazingly cool guy, with all sorts of great stories about trail running and other topics.  The three of us drove back to Nemo, the mile 63 aid station, only to learn that Jeremy was so far ahead that I wouldn’t be able to pace him until at least mile 83, because he would make it to mile 71 before we could.  In the meantime the three of us had dinner and a couple of beers at the aptly named Nemo Restaurant. I had the fuel of champions, fried chicken.

We dropped Scott off at his car and then drove back to the mile 83 station, where we met up with Jeremy’s wife, Natalie, who was pretty much a lone ranger at that aid station.
Natalie is a super patient woman and a skilled crewer, managing two young children and pacing duties by herself -- no small feat! 

3.    Hopping on the Winner’s Bandwagon

We waited about an hour and we finally saw a headlamp.  There he was.  Looking like he’d been out there for 1 hour, rather than 16, Jeremy came to the aid, chugged about three bottles of water, ate three gels, and we were immediately on the trail again.  Wow.  He was crazy smooth and focused, even after 80-plus miles.  For the first five minutes, he was chatty, probably glad to have some human interaction for the first time in 50 miles.  But then, he got back to focusing on the task at hand, and we trudged through the night in silence.  We had a moderate climb, and he asked me to take the lead, so I tried to do a decent job of sensing what a leader of a race would want to run or walk at this stage of a race.  Whenever I pushed the pace a bit, he stuck with me.  He was absolutely motoring for this stage of a race.

True to my typical form, I kicked a rock about two miles into my shift and went ass over head.  It was totally embarrassing. Here he was running all day, and I was the one who couldn’t hack it on this moderately technical trail at night.  I got up quickly, apologized and we went on our way.  After a full day of lounging, eating, drinking, and chatting, it took me a couple of miles to get my wits about me, but after a while, I just focused on the beam from my headlamp and the trail. All said, the time went by pretty quickly.

I thought the mile 90 aid was at 89, so I got a little nervous and ran ahead on a quick scouting mission.  I found the aid, told the volunteers that the first 100-miler would be there shortly, and then raced back to Jeremy.  He repeated the same process.  Three gels, two bottles of ice water. Refill.  On the trail.  We took it easy the first bit out of the aid so he could settle, and then it was back to pushing the pace. 

Mile 95 aid came. Same process.  Three gels, two bottles, and out on the trail. Damn, this guy is a machine.  Three gels at mile 95?  I might have had three gels the last 25 miles of my 100, and wanted to yack every time.  This guy eats three at every aid and then a gel in between?  He’s not a human.  He ‘s a running robot with a steel stomach. 

Jeremy was all business until about mile 99.  Natalie had told us that 2nd place was only 10 minutes back at mile 83, so there wasn’t much room for error. But once we got to the last mile and we couldn’t see any headlamps in the distance, we knew that the race and the course record would be Jeremy’s.  We did a little fist bump and then started running side by side and chatting.  Soon we hit the track and he had his victory lap. 

Turns out things weren't that close after all.  Jeremy won by nearly 40 minutes.

Too bad the only people there to see it (at nearly 3 in the morning) were Natalie, Stephen (who had set up a sleeping bag about 10 feet from the finish line), one lone race volunteer, and the race photographer who was startled out of his sleep. As impressive as his race was, I can testify that the glory of winning a 100-mile race must all be appreciated internally, because there isn't much fanfare waiting for you when you do. 

Jeremy is a humble guy – so let me brag for him.  To have run 20:50 in those conditions on that course, only one week after running a 2:06 at Mt. Evans, is otherworldly.  That guy is only going to get better.  It was an absolute pleasure to be able to get a front-row seat for the whole affair.  Glad he let me tag along.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Goals and Dreams

I’m only racing once this year.  I might pop into a few races here and there, as I did with Boston, but I’m only racing the Leadville 100.  It’s a goal I’ve had for a long time, so I wanted to give it the attention I thought it deserved. 
Training started slow, but in the past couple of months, it has gone as well as could be expected.  I know that I am a significantly better runner than I was a year, or even six months, ago.  I have lots of evidence to support that statement stored in my fancy little Garmin watch.   But as I am only racing once, I occasionally wonder what would happen if I were to fall short of the goal, the big buckle, or, God forbid, fail to finish for some reason. 
There would be nothing to show, outside of my watch and my memories, for the time I’ve put into this crazy race. And at 50 hours-plus a month over the course of many months, that's a lot of damned time.
I know there are some who say that you never consider the possibility of failure.  But I like to consider the full spectrum of possibilities in any endeavor.  And so it is with Leadville.
Here’s what I’ve concluded:
Life isn’t about getting what you want, or achieving a goal, or even finding happiness. It’s about the process you go about in search of any or all of those things.  Once you achieve a goal, no matter how important or consequential the goal may have been, you are still the same person you were before you achieved the goal.  You still have the same feisty human neurochemistry.  You may not have the same goals and dreams that you had before you achieved your goal, but you still have the same instinct to pursue a goal that you always had.
If you ignore that human instinct that needs the pursuit of a dream after you achieve your goal, you may end up less happy after achieving a goal than you were before you achieved it.  I'm not saying you shouldn't have goals.  You absolutely should.  And you should use relentless dogged determination to achieve them.  But ultimately, what’s important isn’t the goal itself, but rather the process you go through in pursuit of the goal.
And so, while I’m tingling with anticipation at the prospect of achieving a goal I’ve had since I was stage-diving at Fishbone concerts as a teenager, I know that all this training, all this time, and all this energy isn’t just about running 100 miles in the mountains in 20-some hours this August.   The training and growth is the end-all of this experience.  And the race is just the party where we will celebrate having done it.
           But, that said, I still want that effing buckle.