Monday 22 July 2013

Vermont 100 - Stage Two Of The Grand Slam

When I first signed up for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (four of the original 100 milers in one summer – Western States, Vermont, Leadville and Wasatch Front), I never expected it to be easy. That’s kind of the point, to challenge my mind and body in a new way. However, I think I was getting caught up in the fun side of things and not appreciating that even the race with the least climbing of the four, Vermont, is very tough just three weeks after running Western States.

If there’s a theme so far in this year’s summer for me, it’s heat. Western States was the second hottest in its 40-year history and Vermont in summer is guaranteed to be humid and probably boiling too. The North-East was hit by a heat wave combined with huge amounts of rain so I mentally prepared myself for dealing with that and applying the lessons from Western States on keeping cool.

Just to add to the mix I decided to pace a friend, Glen Redpath, at Badwater 135, which finished just four days before Vermont and screwed up sleep and rest in the final week. However, it was very enjoyable and worthwhile to see Glen wrestle through 125 degree Fahrenheit highs and close well enough to finish under 30 hours, in 29h58m for 12th place. It’s the third year I’ve paced through Death Valley and each has been rewarding as well as very enlightening about how to deal with extreme heat and lack of shade. If I was to run that race in the future I know I’d be much better prepared but pacing is a lot more pleasurable, and at a fraction of the cost. Just to make the rest of us feel like wimps, Keith Straw is running the Grand Slam plus Badwater for the second time…he ran sub 24 hours at both Western and Vermont!

Badlands near Badwater

10am start wave at Badwater 135

Glen being paced by his brother, Mike Redpath

Glen at the dawn of day two of Badwater

Long road to Mt Whitney

Glen with the crew he may have wished he had

I took a red-eye to Boston from Badwater on Wednesday night pre-Vermont then arrived at the race HQ, a field with no phone reception and basically no nearby hotels, on Friday. Spirits were high as everybody contemplated the weather and how that might impact things. With many people camping I opted to sleep in the small rental car, which wasn’t ideal. When a seriously impressive and dramatic thunderstorm erupted at 11pm, I was happy I’d avoided my tiny, non-waterproof tent. Even though I had to be up for the 4am start I couldn’t help watching the storm for a while as it lit up the sky and helped to bring the humidity and temperature down briefly.

That storm helped to make the weather much more manageable for the first 40-50 miles of the race although it warmed up and both Nick Clark and Nick Pedatella told me afterwards that they really felt the heat. The weather was the least of my worries since I’ve never had so many things go wrong in a race. Although I’d done some test runs, even with speed, I hadn’t run anything remotely long since Western States and therefore didn’t know how much fatigue I would have to deal with on race day. The answer was lots.

Eating too much at the pre-race dinner meant I had three emergency toilet stops in the first 20 miles and kept dropping off the lead pack each time then gradually reeling them in. The fairly gentle hills and mainly fire-road trails felt reasonably good, even in the first hour which was fully dark. We had plenty of chat and banter between our small group, which included Jason Lantz (the eventual winner), Chad Ricklefs (leader up to mile 98.5) and Nick Clark. The race within the race was between Nick and myself since we were both comfortably under the Grand Slam record split from Western States with a relatively narrow margin of 36 minutes between us. So when Nick disappeared in the distance and I dropped to around eighth after 25-30 miles, it wasn’t a good sign. Getting lost for a few minutes at mile 40-something didn’t help either, but the mistake was quickly corrected.

The relatively easy and non-technical terrain is deceptive in that much of it (but not all) is fast and gentle in itself but it cumulatively adds up enough that tired legs soon become nearly useless. 100 milers tend to be large patches of feeling good mixed in with a few bad spots and a grind to the finish. This one was almost reversed for me, with long sections of feeling completely fatigued and sore with the occasional fast couple of miles. I had periods of dizziness, light-headedness and sickness with the best sections merely hurting, even early on. Throughout it all I had to fight off the demons of negative voices in my head and stop myself from thinking about anything that wasn’t going well, instead reminding myself I was moving forwards and that nothing was serious enough to warrant giving up or not pushing on. As per Bryon Powell’s, it was all about ‘Relentless Forward Progress.’

It wasn’t fun for me and I wasn’t able to enjoy the course like I’d hoped to. At mile 70 my pacer, Jordan Fields, joined me and I felt sorry for him for having to go so slowly since he’s a top class cross-country skier and 12-15 minute miles were like going backwards. Miles 70-80 were so about my slowest and I expected that the final 20 would be equally poor. Luckily the pain and dizziness faded to a more standard dull ultra ache and that meant faster running was more feasible. I was in fifth and Nick was 13-14 minutes ahead so my aim was to minimize that gap and maybe catch him if he hit a particularly bad spell.

In honesty I don’t want to remember much of the day because the best memory was crossing the finish line. I’m very happy I didn’t give up and managed the worst parts of the day well enough to keep moving at a fair pace throughout, so I’ve got my grinder hat on and am ready to dig in for the last two races of the Slam. DNF is not an option, especially after forcing myself through two tough days already.

I closed slightly on Nick in the final miles and overtook last year’s winner (who only missed the course record by a minute in 2012), Brian Rusiecki, to climb to fourth. He passed me like I was petrified at mile 50 but was suffering at the end and didn’t really try to race me. 15h57m was my eventual time, three minutes behind Nick and with splits that weren’t too uneven – around 7h30m for the first half and 8h27m for the remainder. Here’s the Strava data. Both Nick and myself clocked the altitude gain at 15,300ft, a little more than advertized (in contrast, my watch showed WS as 500ft of ascent less than advertised). Full results here.

The race had several differences to what I’m used to on the West Coast, including having multiple distances of horse races at the same time as the run, although they didn’t really impact runners under about 18 hours in the 100 mile run. Aid stations were plentiful as there were 30, but many were unmanned with just water, Coke and Gatorade in huge containers that were awkward to fill water bottles from. No gels at any aid stations also made it harder to fuel as I usually have 50+ in this type of race and was limited to what I brought with me. I’d guess this is a result of littering on the private property the race goes through in the past.
It’s an historic and great race which I feel I didn’t do justice too, except through the fact I didn’t give up. On second thoughts that’s probably the most defining aspect of a 100-miler, so the other bits I care about personally (like times and positions) are less relevant. The scenery very much reminded me of the UK and of many trail races I’ve run there, including the muddy woodland paths.

Leadville is four weeks away so the extra week of recovery should help, plus I’ll be staying in Colorado for two weeks pre-race to get some easy altitude acclimatization in. From speaking to past Slammers things usually feel better by Leadville so I really hope that’s true. Paul Terranova was able to run the Hawaii Ironman after his 80-hour slam last year and did so pretty fast (for mere mortals, not by his standards).

Grand Slam stats so far:

Number of starters – 31 (plus Nick Clark unofficially)
Number of runners left after Western States – 28 (plus Nick)
Number of runners left after Vermont – 26 (plus Nick)
Neil Gorman’s 2010 total time to the end of Vermont when setting the GS record: 34h47m
Scott Jurek’s 2004 total time to the end of Vermont in his GS: 32h17m
Nick Clark’s total GS time to date: 32h51m
My total GS time to date: 32h18m

Gear used at Vermont:

Scott Kinabalu T2 trail shoes
UltrAspire handhelds
Julbo Dust shades
Clif Bar Shot gels (not nearly as many as I needed)
Drymax Max Protection Trail socks

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Western States 2013 And The Start Of The Grand Slam

Day before the race with Jorge Maravilla and Cameron Clayton. I told them we should have waited til the countdown clock showed 14:45...

This year was hot at Western States. If you're reading this, you already know that (and you probably followed it on irunfar and Twitter). You also know that Oregon dominated the race with the male and female winners (Timmy Olson and Pam Smith) and 3/10 of the top men (I only recently left the state and still count myself as being from there) and 4/10 of the top women, especially three of the first four! Not bad considering the high at Auburn airport was 102F (39C), which is the measure used for comparison between the years. On the course itself it could have been as high as 110F!

The starters' list was deep as always with a good 10-15 men who'd place at the top of any trail ultra you chose to name and almost as many women. However, the heat meant that more would drop or fade than in a cooler year so the priority for most was to run an intelligent race and deal with the conditions and take advantage of the faster sections of the course. I was worried about an ankle sprain from three weeks earlier but it was only noticeable in the first half of the race and somehow faded after that so I think I got lucky in not damaging it too much.

Near the top of Emigrants Pass at dawn. Photo: Drymax Socks

I think of the race as being made up of four parts - the high country (miles 0-35), the canyons (miles 35-62), Cal St down to the river (miles 62-78) then the flatter other side of the river (miles 78-100.2). The heat didn't really hit until the end of the high country and that section was the most fun I've had in a race for a while. The weather was beautiful, the High Sierra views were stunning and I got to run with the chase pack behind early leaders Cameron Clayton and Hal Koerner (who both dropped later in the race). The good thing about 100s is that the early pace is comfortable but I usually can't keep up with the mountain guys on the climbs so I knew the training had paid off when that wasn't an issue.

WS profile, run from right to left

As we started to drop down towards the canyons the pack (which now contained Hal) split up with Hal charging ahead to take the lead. I had a bad patch from 28-38 miles but knew it was early on so focused on eating more and aiming to keep myself cool with ice and cold water on my head. It worked and I only dropped back to 8th place, not helped by a section of trail for a few miles with no markings on it which made me question the route, turn around then run back until I bumped into Rob Krar and Dylan Bowman.

Starting the canyons it was certainly getting hot but nowhere near the maximums for the day so there were no real issues and I had a few miles with Jorge Maravilla who I then expected to run with for the rest of the day. He faded slightly and at an aid station I was leaving as he entered so I missed out on more fun with him (trust me, running with Jorge is always a pleasure).

I hiked up to Devil's Thumb at 47.8 miles and had to concentrate on taking it easy as the temperatures rose, but at least the trees provided plenty of shade. The only thing that really helped to make it more manageable was having ice in my bandana around my neck and this was the single most important thing I did at each aid station, stopping me from melting. Immersing myself in every small creek or stream was also worth the time so much more effort was put into physical management than the previous cold year at the race. On average I probably spent 1-2 mins at each aid station after mile 30 and that was time well spent.

The favorite for the Grand Slam as well as a likely winner of WS100 itself, Nick Clark, was in the Devil's Thumb aid station when I got there so we set off down the long descent to El Dorado Creek together. He's not the chattiest of runners but both of us were suffering by this point anyway so we barely exchanged a few sentences. He did get to hear me grunt a lot and have some heavy breathing every time I took a drink then had to regain my breath. I also think Nick didn't want to let me pass, even though it was relatively early in the race so he pushed the pace downhill and we were frequently running around a 6:30/mile pace.

At El Dorado Creek the now familiar restocking of bandana ice was the priority plus taking on plenty of calories and a drink of iced coke. Rob Krar was there too and he must have left while my back was turned since I thought I was the first out the aid station and only found out much later that he was still ahead. However, I was in 5th at this point and over half-way through plus I was holding together well so kept looking after myself and not worrying too much about where the guys ahead had got to.

The ascent to Michigan Bluff went fairly quickly but not fast enough to stop the ice melting so I was starting to get woozy by that aid station at 55.7 miles. A restocking from my crew with military precision (literally - I had Casey Cooper helping me out and he flies those famous Obama drones so dealing with a dizzy Brit in the sun wasn't taxing for him) got me on my way but it wasn't long before Mike Morton caught me. We had a chat for a mile or so but he seemed to be almost unaffected by the heat so zoomed of and put a couple of minutes on me by Foresthill at 62.0 miles, which also ended the canyon section.

Foresthill with a pat on the back from Brett Rivers (SF Running Co). Photo: Drymax Socks

This is where the race really starts so I ate and drank, restocked on ice and eventually got out the aid station and on my way. Suddenly I felt great and the 3.7 miles down to Cal 1 took a mere 28 mins. The aid station volunteers commented that I looked like I'd just started running, although that short burst of feeling amazing only lasted a couple more miles.

Cal St was tough as ever and it always seems that the next aid station is much farther away than advertised. Since I had a GPS watch with enough battery for the whole race I could tell for once how close I was getting but it wasn't very encouraging as my pace was slower than I hoped but I did pass DBo while he had some stomach issues at an aid station plus Hal before he dropped. Luckily most of Cal St was shaded at this time of day so I was saved from the hottest sun of the day except on a few exposed sections, then again for the final miles to the river.

Even though WS100 is famed for the rope crossing over the American River at 78 miles between the two Rucky Chucky aid stations, I've never crossed it on my own and have been boated across every time. My fourth experience here was just the same, but I spent plenty of time in the water on the other side to cool down, just up to the point where I heard DBo getting into the boat on the other side.

Rucky Chucky. Photo: Gary Wang.

Rucky Chucky far side. Photo: Patrick Sweeney.
That just left the last 22 miles of easier trails but with destroyed legs, a stomach that wasn't desiring any food and plenty of heat whenever there wasn't shade. I now had a last minute pacer in Gary Gellin since he'd offered to run two days earlier although I'd planned to run solo. Dylan was under two minutes behind so I was running scared and knew that if I faltered he'd catch me. Ahead was Timmy Olson, followed by a charging Rob Krar and determined Mike Morton, but they had 24+ mins of a cushion so I'd only catch them if they blew up. It wasn't worth worrying about and all I could control was my own race by making sure I got to the finish as fast as possible, preferably in daylight.

I grunted and groaned my way through those miles with Gary talking and me generally giving short answers. At least I was running the easier stuff and power-hiking well on the slower terrain, but I had several bouts of giddiness that were only partially fixed by small amounts of food and drink. Dbo remained a few mins behind and I managed to extend that gradually to five mins by Highway 49 at mile 93.5. A final burst of energy allowed me to run hard down to No Hands Bridge and fly through that aid station without taking anything on board.

The gamesmanship came into play now and I told Gary to not use his headlamp on the final ascent to Auburn and to not talk so Dylan wouldn't have a clue how close we were if he was catching. It was fully dark by halfway up the climb but the adrenalin was pumping and it was easy enough to get to the top unscathed. That just left the final 1.3 miles through Auburn from Robie Point, which I powered through so that I could end the pain sooner.

As ever, the last sections of the race felt like hell and I questioned several times why I think it's a good idea to do these races. I completely avoided thinking about the rest of the Grand Slam on purpose as that was too overwhelming and it's only a couple of days later that the other three 100s this summer seems like a good idea.

It was an emotional race and drained me completely, leaving me feeling temporarily empty and wiped out at the finish. The only emotion I really felt was relief that it was over, but as I recovered in the following hours it all seemed worthwhile. Still, I strongly believe that this race is a hugely enjoyable endeavor for 364.5 days a year with just a mere half day of nastiness after about 50 miles into the race. Being in Tahoe and Squaw Valley pre-race is incredibly enjoyable and exciting plus it's the best chance of the year to catch up with ultra friends from all over the US and also the world.

Finish line with repeat winner Timmy Olson and Gary Gellin. I think Timmy had time for a shower, meal and sleep! Photo: Shahid Ali.

All results are here and the top 10s were a lot more spread out than last year with a lot more carnage. In hindsight I can enjoy the spectacle that is Western States and pretend I loved every second. Well, I did love most of it.

Awards with my fast coaching client Henrik Westerlin (2nd left), his wife Barbara and pacer Victor Ballesteros. A solid  20:46 for Henrik in his first 100.

One down, three to go. My 16:20 is 1:54 under the Grand Slam record set by Neal Gorman in 2010 but it's just the beginning so there's a lot to deal with before I can get too excited about the record being achievable. Nick Clark finished in 6th in 16:56 so he's also comfortably under the record so far.

Neal's 2010 race times were as follows:

Western States 100 - 18:14:00
Vermont 100 - 16:33:11
Leadville Trail 100 - 18:47:54
Wasatch Front 100 - 21:19:11

Total - 74:54:16

Thanks so much to my the organizers, my crew and my wife plus my sponsors - here's the gear I used in the race, which I spent months deciding on and it all worked perfectly:

- UltrAspire Alpha and Surge hydration packs (switching between the two)
- Scott T2 Kinabalu shoes
- Drymax Max Protection Trail Running Socks
- Julbo Dust Sunglasses (blue)
- About 60 Clif Shot gels

Plus some general photos in and around Tahoe and Squaw from the week before the race.