Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Race Report: Broken Arrow Skyrace 52k

The Broken Arrow Skyrace was held in California on June 18-19, 2016, in Squaw Valley, California. It joins Speedgoat 50k in Utah and The Rut 50k in Montana in the US Skyrunning series. What sets the Skyrunning series (an international organization encompassing some 200 races in 65 countries) apart from other races is the nature of the courses: altitude above 2000 meters (6600 feet), and climbs up to 30% grade. Events usually center around a vertical kilometer race and an ultra-distance Skyrace. Squaw Valley met these requirements in spades.

I had originally planned to run the Summer Solstice 12 hour event in San Francisco. It was tentatively scheduled for the same weekend and would provide a good training venue for my goal race, Angeles Crest 100 Mile. I planned to experiment with nutrition sources and remedies on the one mile loop around Crissy Field. Unfortunately, Pacific Coast Trail Runs was unable to acquire their permit this year; apparently Crissy Field was booked for the month of June. I was explaining my predicament to Victor from Victory Sportdesign over a beer a few weeks before the race when he suggested Broken Arrow. I had heard some details about the race, but hadn't considered it until that moment. 

"With that much vert, it will be great training for AC," he said. The idea scared me initially, but the more I considered it, the more I knew he was right. I pulled the trigger two weeks before the race.

My training plan from McMillan Run Club was paying dividends. Aerobic fitness was falling into line with peak fitness from years past, and my climbing muscles were not far behind. The race allowed the use of poles, which I knew would help distribute the pain and allow me to continue training the week after the race. No crew or drop bags made planning simple. Show up, run aid station to aid station and take care of myself. It doesn't get much better. The aid stations would provide my go to fuel (Clif Energy Food), and I would carry single use Tailwind packs for my water bottles.

Race weekend, organizers determined there was too much snow on parts of the course, requiring a re-route. They ended up shaving off a couple of miles, but adding about a thousand feet of vertical. The final stats were something around 32 miles and 10,500-11,500 feet of climbing. Not a bad day's work. I set my goal at ten hours and told myself to stay comfortable.

Broken Arrow 52k

Vertical profile

Thousand yard stare, photo by Mike Kreaden
Race morning I drove to Squaw Valley while fueling and sipping my coffee. I arrived an hour before race start, checked in (awesome swag) and got my gear squared away. The course change resulted in a rule change: drop bags would be allowed, so I packed up my Victory bag with my usual desires, tightened up my laces and joined the throng at the starting line. 

As advertised, the course went pretty much straight up the valley, following single-track winding through thickets and meadows. I kept my effort in zone 2 for most of the day, and at that altitude, I was moving pretty slowly. 

Near the end of the second mile, the conga line I was in took a wrong turn at a trail junction. Some trails had red flags, some had yellow, and some had both. The leader of the line stopped about a half mile from the junction, realizing we were headed away from High Camp, the site of the first aid station. I turned tail and ran back the way we came, shouting "On-on!" when I picked up the true trail. A fellow hasher had followed me, Nicolas from Washington D.C.. We would spend the majority of the race near each other, although most of the course is steep enough to quash any conversation. I confirmed we were on course with the first marshal I saw, and soon enough we were at the High Camp aid station.
Shirley Lakes Basin

Climbing to Emigrant Pass, photo by Noe Castanon
The view from the Escarpment

Squaw Peak, the high point of the course

MILES of snow fields

Squaw Valley

From there, the course dropped into Shirley Lakes Basin for a short 1.5 mile loop. The north facing slopes still held soft snow, giving me an opportunity to try glissading. Of course, having not ever really glissaded before, I ended up on my butt every time. A long, snowy climb out brought us to an aid station near the foot of the Escarpment (Big Blue), which we then had to climb.

Obligatory mid-race selfie

Squaw Creek cascading

KT-22 (Easy Street aid station at the bottom of that road)

The descent to the valley floor was spectacular. Long traverses through snow fields combined with some steeper pitches that provided more glissading practice made me glad I chose to use poles; they helped brake my descent by dragging them like a paddle.  By the time I returned to  Base Camp my quads were spent. I was only 10 miles in and it had taken three hours. Right on track for a ten hour finish, I thought. Eric Schranz was on the PA announcing runners, and he wished me a good time on the trails when I departed for the rest of the race. Nice touch. 

My favorite tree in the Valley

Then, more climbing. First, a series of long switchbacks and a traverse brought the runners near the summit of Snow King Peak. That climb totaled 1300' in three miles. I saw the 26k leaders come screaming down the hill at me as I climbed. They were working hard! Then, as I descended to the fourth aid station at Easy Street, I began to see the 52k leaders. Dakota Jones was power hiking, hands on quads, moving steadily and smoothly. I wanted to stop and watch, but I knew I had a long way to go. Here he was four miles from the finish while I still had 18 miles to go!

A quick stop at the aid station and then another big climb to the top of KT-22. Another 1200' in 1.5 miles! More famous faces came at me, including Tim Tollefson, Marin local Galen Burell and Max King. A short descent to a saddle, and then yet another 1200' of climbing in 1.5 miles to the summit of Squaw Peak at almost 9000 feet above sea level. The final approach to the summit was ridiculous: rock scrambling, a rusty 30' ladder and roped up snowfield. Course marshals at the ladder to the peak saw some interesting expressions, I'm sure. My blood sugar was getting low as I climbed the ladder, poles in one hand. I felt the exposure on both sides and focused on getting to the peak safely.
Ridgeline to Squaw Peak, note red ladder in center-left

Approach to Squaw Peak, photo by Noe Castanon

The ridge to Squaw Peak, photo by Noe Castanon

Ladder to Squaw Peak summit
Final ascent to Squaw Peak summit, photo by Noe Castanon

The course retraced its steps through the high country, hitting the Big Blue aid station, Shirley Lakes Basin and High Camp aid station. A long traverse and descent brought runners to the last bit of new trail: the climb up the Headwall face and traverse around Sun Bowl. This section gained yet another 1200', but this time in a much more forgiving 2 miles. From there, it was just two summits, KT-22 and Snow King Peak before the final descent to the Village and the finish line. I ran with a 14 year old named Adam from SoCal for much of this stretch. On the climb to KT-22 I let him go. I was tired and felt like I had gotten my training run in. I took it easy on the final miles, conserving my legs for the next week's training.

The finishing miles of the course follow the ridgeline on the right

I spoke with a few runners who had completed Hardrock, and they all agreed this course was a good primer on the relentless climbing and varied terrain of the iconic course through the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. Most I spoke to claimed it was the hardest 50k they had ever run. For an inaugural event, the race organization was spot on, and the support was excellent (aside from the confusing course marking around the trail junctions). In lieu of running States in June, I think this race could become a cornerstone of my summer racing schedule. Hopefully next time I can race it, instead of turning it into an eight hour training run with a three hour cool down!

The Strava data:

Monday, May 2, 2016

A Dream Takes Shape: Mapping the Yuba River Run

As I prepared for this weekend's Miwok 100k in the Marin Headlands, I got in some good long runs in Nevada County. In doing so, I have finally mapped the race course for the Inaugural Yuba River Run 100k/50k. I am pretty excited to have this most important step behind me. Now I begin the arduous process of identifying stakeholders and agencies which will need to provide support or permission. I have received a ton of interest from friends, acquaintances and readers. While the bulk of my work lay ahead, mapping the course has been just as fun as I hope the race will be.

The 100k course is a loop course beginning and ending in Pioneer Park, Nevada City. We called this quaint mining town home for decades. A natural showcase with great amenities, Broad Street will be a welcome sight on the home stretch.

The course climbs and traverses Banner Mountain before crossing Scotts Flat Reservoir and climbing Harmony Ridge. A long run out the ridge on the Pioneer Trail brings the runners to the Omega/Alpha road descent to the Little Town of Washington. This marks 50k, and the 50k runners will be bused to Washington for their start.

Then comes the gemstone of the race, 18 miles along the South Yuba River Trail. A stout climb up Round Mountain gets the runners out of the canyon, and after a short out and back summit of Sugarloaf Mountain (with views of Nevada City) runners will have less than 5k to the finish.

The 100k course has approximately 8000' of elevation gain. I have not calculated the 50k course yet, but will likely be 4000' +/- 700'. 

Yuba River Run 100k Course Map
100k Course Profile
Interested in running or volunteering? Comment below!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Race Report: 2016 Gorge Waterfalls 50k
Negotiating throngs of tourists has never been my strong suit. Even as a tourist myself, I avoid large crowds, preferring remote destinations. Never-the-less, I found myself running through a sea of families at Multnomah Falls Recreation Area with a mile to go in the 2016 Gorge Waterfalls 50k.

I had entered the first lottery in 2015 but failed to be selected. It seems the second time is a charm, and it ended up fitting my calendar much better than the alternative American River 50 mile. Sciatica (my first encounter) kept me off my feet and getting fat for most of the winter. A self-preservation DNF at Way Too Cool 50k in March had my fire lit; regardless of how long it took me, I was going to finish this race. I had not finished an ultra since crossing  the finish line in LeFebvre Stadium nearly ten months prior. I needed a confidence boost.

The lottery results were posted in mid-November - weeks before my sciatica hit. At that point, gaining entry to States was still a possibility (a small one). It fit into my ambitious schedule perfectly. I had never traveled so far to run a race before, and I love Portland, so I was pretty excited. As race weekend drew near, it became obvious that Twirly would be unable to join me due to work commitments. I would fly to Portland alone, and run the race without crew. Another first for  me.

I spent a couple days before the race hanging with old friends, staying in Troutdale (about fifteen minutes from the finish line). The majority of my pre-race stress came from trying to pick a local brew to enjoy while I prepared for race day. A 9:00 am start meant I could awake at a decent hour, and race morning dawned overcast and balmy.

The race climbs around 6000 feet over 31+ miles, with almost a third occurring in the last 6 miles. Mostly single track with about 10% paved roads, the course tours through the waterfalls and campgrounds on the Oregon side of the Colombia River Gorge.

Single track begins!
Runners are bused from the finish line at Benson State Recreation Area to the Wyeth Campground. It took about 25 minutes, and I chatted with my seat-mate. Jeremy was running his first 50k and had a similar professional background. We chatted about everything from race strategies to drinking water infrastructure. He went on to finish sub-6 hour on the tough course (nice job). I also met fellow Circle Cat Larry, from SoCal (finished sub-7). We commiserated about lack of fitness and training, starting the race together and chatting about niggles and treatment strategies for the first few miles. After about a half an hour, my heart rate forced me to slow down. My aerobic fitness just isn't there yet.

Wooden bridges out-numbered waterfalls for quite a while

Lushness abounds

I held my pace steady and easy, allowing runners to pass as they needed. After about four miles, the course leveled off and we had a mile-long downhill to stretch the legs. Another mile climb led to a more rolling descent to the first aid station at Cascade Locks. The station was organized and efficient. My legs were feeling good, but my back reminded me to keep my core engaged. I imagined squeezing a quarter between my butt cheeks and rotating my hips forward every time I felt the twinge. Between that and the rocky trail, I had my mind full!

Plenty of information to distract you

Old roads..

Surrounded by history

More bridges

The next section flattened out, and brought a short section of pavement on the old Gorge Highway. My nutrition was working really well. Skratch Labs Green Tea in the bottles, Clif Energy Food Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal and a back-up bottle of caffeinated Tailwind provided a variety of slow-trickle calories. As always while racing, 5 grams of Master Amino Pattern every hour kept the cramps and lactic acid at bay.

The rolling course would occasionally have a 200-400 foot pop, which provided an opportunity to change up the muscle workload, and every 25 minutes or so we would cross another drainage, almost always on a wooden bridge. I had expected to get my feet wet, but kept them dry for the duration of the race. Around mile 15 I began wondering when we would see an iconic water fall. I had been under the assumption that the whole course was a tour of waterfalls. While there was plenty of water running, the first significant falls didn't show up until mile 18. Totally worth the wait! Glenn Tachiyama was posted, ensuring a race picture worth spending some $ on:

Elowah Falls, Mile 18, photo by Glenn Tachiyama

This one bounced!
I spent a few extra minutes at the Yeon aid station. I mixed some more Skratch and Tailwind, had a volunteer pour some water on a towel, and wiped off my head. The clouds had burned off and the temperature was climbing. The next 2 miles followed the frontage road, and had a slight rise. I had trouble keeping my heart rate down and took regular walk breaks to ensure I still had legs for the final segment. Runners leapfrogged, and I saw a lot of familiar faces from the first 30k.

The section between Yeon and No Name aid stations provided some really run-able grades, but rock slides and technical trail made it feel more like hopscotch. I began to joke with fellow runners that the course "was the most beautiful course I never get to look at!"

Trying to carry speed through loose rock piles and slides took the utmost focus

I liked the granite trail markers

You guessed it... More bridges!
The falls grew larger

The course even ducks behind this waterfall!

Jeff Bridges has nothing on the Gorge Trail 400

This one was in a box canyon

Did I mention the enormous river?

Multnomah Falls

The waterfalls came more frequently, and leaving the No Name aid station we were told there was just one more big climb, then a paved switchback descent, and then the finish. I felt good as I approached the final climb at Multnomah Falls. The tourists grew more dense as the trail approached the recreation area. Eleven paved switchbacks provided a decent grade, and I enjoyed bending to the trail and power hiking. At the top of the falls, the trail continued to climb. This was the prettiest section of the course, in my opinion. A lush canyon dotted with more falls, and a never-ending climb of about 1500' overall. I caught a runner from Mexico and we exchanged grins before he took off running up the hill. I caught him again at the top. He was pretty wasted from the effort.

The final chasm was straight out of wonderland
The descent to the finish was as advertised. About two miles of rocky single track gave way to the paved switchbacks. Tourists were fewer on this side, and I was in the groove. Carnage dotted the course. Limpers and leaners whimpered with each step. I tried to encourage them: "can you smell the barn?", "good job, keep it up". I was trying to leave it all on this hill, quads be damned.

I arrived at the bottom of the switchbacks, just above the park and the finish line festival, only to have the course bend away from the grassy field and turn back up hill towards Multnomah Falls! It turned out I still had over a mile to go. I looked at my watch and determined I could still eeke out a sub-8 hour finish, which gave me the motivation to keep moving. The crowds grew thick as I entered the parking area for the falls. Little children darted in front of me, forcing me to stutter step or stop altogether. Finally I gained the grassy double track that would take me around the lake and back to the finish. The longest 8 minutes of the race!

I finished just under the wire: 7:58. My slowest 50k to date, but still a very satisfying return to ultra running. James Varner, Race Director, gave me a high five and I went to get out of my sweat-soaked race kit. Beer flowed, pizza was plentiful and race stories were recounted by friends old and new. Rainshadow Running really hits the ball out of the park with this race. Despite its technical trails and crowded vistas, I can see returning to conquer the Gorge Waterfalls again.

Huge thanks to the Rainshadow Running crew and all the volunteers. Of course, Victory Sportdesign drop bags kept me in the race and moving through the stations efficiently. I used two Cougar I's and a Coyote I at Cascade Locks. Besides water, I took nothing from the aid stations. Although I wasn't as fleet of foot as I have been in the past, I executed well. I move forward with this confidence boost under my belt and set my sights on Miwok 100k in four weeks.

As always, thanks for reading. Now here's the deets:

Monday, March 7, 2016

Race Report: 2016 Way Too Cool 50k (the DNF)

One of many water crossings at the 2016 Way Too Cool 50k. Photo by Mario Fraioli
Nutella: the stuff trails are made of
I rested often, climbing the 750' up American Canyon. Hoboken Creek was swollen, but far from the raging torrent David and I negotiated in December 2012. We had to daisy chain a fellow runner across that morning. Today it was barely knee high. Heavy rains made the trail slick; like running on Nutella. Only two weeks after my epidural I was just over halfway through the 2016 Way Too Cool 50k.

Race start. Photo by Chris Blagg

I ran 27 miles the week following the procedure, culminating in a 14 mile long run (my longest of the year thus far). To say I was under-trained would be an understatement. My log showed 71 miles run for all of 2016 as I toed the line on an inclement, windy morning. The rain abated for a few hours around the race start, which was a blessing. Forecasts had called for 3 inches of rain and 70 MPH gusts by afternoon. The trails remained saturated and slippery.

This race was a "D" race. A supported training run. My goal time was 7 hours. I stood in the corral with Twirly with just minutes to go when I realized I had forgotten to put on my heart rate monitor. I have worn that thing for a thousand runs, forgetting it maybe twice. Geez, I'm out of practice racing. I thought. We had stayed with friends in Auburn Lake Trails (ALT) the night before. Access to the gated community meant Twirly could see me at the ALT aid station at mile 21 in addition to resupplying me at the firehouse around mile 8.

Without my watch continually reminding me to take it easy, I took it easier than I thought I should. My mantra was "100 mile pace, 100 mile pace." Focusing on foot placement was paramount as we left the pavement and descended to Knickerbocker Creek. Climbing out of the creek bed, a reader/runner recognized me and we chatted on the climb. It happens so rarely I forget that people might recognize me from Wanderplace. It is always nice to meet readers. Des, a New Zealander living in Davis, was hoping to improve on his previous time of ~6:30 by breaking 6 hours. I warned him that the conditions were not conducive to a PR, and that he better stay in front of me. He went on to finish in 5:59! Nice work Des, and great to meet you.

The first 8 miles, aka the Olmsted Loop, went smoothly. I stayed on my feet, listened for the iconic frogs and took regular walk breaks on the edge of the trail. About a mile from the end of the loop a deer bolted through the pack, eliciting cheers and whoops from runners. "He's gonna win if he keeps that pace up!" someone behind me exclaimed. I came through the Fire Station (~mile 7.5) in ~1:40 - about 25 minutes off my best. Twirly and Victor helped me get squared away for the remainder of the race while I told them I felt "meh". I admit, I was looking forward to the descent to Quarry Road. I hadn't run that stretch since States, and I love finding my groove on the technical stretch of trail.

Quarry Road looking down river. PC unknown
I continued focusing on foot placement and cruised onto Quarry Road feeling relatively good. My back was getting sore, but it served as a reminder to rotate my hips forward and keep my back stacked (both strategies recommended by my physical therapist). I grazed at the aid station and mixed a bottle of Tailwind. I couldn't get the Tailwind wrapper open with my wet hands, so the Queen helped open it for me and Julie (sans Torrey) gave me a quick report on how the real race up front was unfolding. The rain began to pick up, and I set off down Quarry Road. I continued using a run/walk approach to keep my effort in check.

On the climb up American Canyon I began to feel spent. My back continued to ache, and my hips and glutes were screaming. Frequent strength work has my hip girdle in a constant state of fatigue. I knew that if I finished the race my training for the following week would suffer. I began to have that old internal dialogue:

"I want to drop."

"Why? You aren't injured or fighting cut-offs, and you're still having fun, right?"

"This slippery shit is NOT fun. And if I continue I MIGHT hurt myself. If I get to ALT aid station that will make 21 miles. 32 for the week. I ran 26 miles the week before. It will end up being the perfect length for this point in the training cycle."

"And you won't screw up your ultrasignup score!"

Just like that, I had come to peace with dropping. Twirly was only 2.5 miles away. As I turned the idea of my first DNF over in my head, I heard Gordy Ainsleigh coming up the hill behind me. We crested the hill and I stepped aside to let the legend go. I power-hiked the last couple miles, trying to let runners go by without holding them up. Erika came up behind me around Barb's bench, and we chatted about race schedules and injuries for a few minutes.

I glissaded into the aid station at ALT and asked for the station captain. He thought I was an injured runner he had been hearing about, but I assured him I was okay, just done. He asked if I needed a ride out, and I told him I should have one waiting... But no Twirly. It all worked out though - I only waited a few minutes before I had a ride. I got back to the Fire Station around 1 pm.

In the VSD tent. Photo by Karen Gerasimovich
I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the Victory Sportdesign tent enjoying Headlands IPA and catching up with old friends. I got changed into dry clothes and got a massage from Ve Loyce at the Monsters of Massage tent. Ve Loyce treats me well; I wish I lived closer to his shop. I felt pretty good about my decision, and my body bounced back quickly. I know I could have finished, but I wasn't there to prove anything. I got exactly the time on my feet that I needed at this point in my training.

Ann likes to have her athletes break down races into threes: name three things you did right, did wrong, etc. I thought a lot about that during my internal dialogue, and here is what I came up with:

Things I did right:
  1. I listened to my body and when it spoke up I came to the right decision. Those last ten miles would have been junk miles.
  2. I stayed on my feet in very difficult conditions. Also, I wore gaiters to keep the silt in the water crossings out of my shoes.
  3. I executed my race plan: nutrition was on track and my pace kept easy.
Finishers chute. Photo by Amy Melcher Ownes
Things I did wrong:
  1. I wasn't organized in my usual fashion and that resulted in forgetting my heart rate monitor.
  2. My shoes, Altra Lone Peak 1.5s, lacked sufficient traction in the slippery conditions. I need to buy some shoes with beefier lugs on them for rainy, sloppy days.
  3. I should have made it clear to Twirly that I might drop at ALT. That would have ensured she met me there. Not a big deal in the end, but I could have ended up waiting at the aid station for a lot longer than I did and it was getting cold.
I have often tried to imagine what my first DNF would look like. I made it 23 races before it happened, and it happened on my own terms. No bones showing, no sweeps or cut-offs looming. It feels right. I just hope it doesn't lower the threshold, making it an easier decision in the future. If it had been a goal race I would have soldiered on,  but now I have enough in the tank to focus on training up to Gorge Waterfalls 50k (which I will be running as a "B", not racing) and this Spring's ultimate goal: the Miwok 100k and that 2017 Western States qualifier.

Huge thanks to all the volunteers (especially Leah, who gave me ride back to the Fire station) and NorCal Ultras. Thanks to Victory Sportdesign for keeping my shit together and providing shelter from the storm for the afternoon: get in, get out, get moving! And thanks to all you who read Wanderplace. From this side of the blog, it is difficult to discern if I am connecting with anyone. That makes it nice to meet people who have benefited from these pages.