Sunday, June 29, 2014

5th Annual - North Fork 50 miler, Pine Colorado

North 'put a fork in me' 50 miler.  A good start, a miserable middle and a strong finish!
9:39.11 - 12th place.

The legendary Ann Trason, 14 time winner of the Western States 100 once remarked that running a 100 miles is like living your life from start to finish, beginning as a baby and growing old through the race.  While not a 100-miler, I got as close to getting a sense of those feelings this weekend as I bobbed along a roller coaster of emotion I've never experienced in a foot race before.

With Western States coincidentally being held on the same day this year, I didn't get a chance to enjoy a day of following twitter feeds and FB posts about the incredibly deep field assembled in CA.  Instead I was in Pine, Colorado trying to get a good training race in ahead of the Leadville 100 later this summer.

Felix wearing Dadda's race day shoes.  He's got a ways to grow into them yet.

While running has been a part of my life since a young boy, ultra running still feels relatively new.  Particularly as this was only my second 50-miler; and, while my first at SJS 50 last year was a 'race', it really became something of a nice long yomp over the hills enjoying the scenery.  I wanted to see on this outing how much I could run over 50 miles from the get go without breaking down late in the race and having to slog it out to the finish.  As with most ultra running, things rarely go to plan, and this day was a good reminder that sometimes the goals can go straight out the window when the going gets tough.  I'm pretty sure they should start serving humble pie at the aid stations.

It's always tricky with races that start two distances at the same time.  North Fork had the 50 mile and 50K racers completing the same course for the first 15 miles before going their respective ways.  While I was focused on my own effort from the beginning, it did leave me wondering if half of the folks around me were going to disappear in a couple of hours down the trail or whether I would have company the whole way. Because of the winding, twisting nature of the trails, I would have to wait until near the halfway mark to find out when some of the lead runners were coming back from the turn around point.

The course gains a total of around 7,300 ft over the 50 miles and tops out at an elevation of 8,400 ft.  It's about 7 significant climbs starting with a solid 1,000 ft in the first few miles and ending with a similar descent to the finish.  I chose North Fork as it's half the distance and half the elevation gain as Leadville, and would hopefully give me a sense of a mostly runnable course.  Leadville would be flatter and higher with more occasional big climbs, whereas North Fork was up and down the whole way and almost all runnable except a few steep pitches of quick hiking here and there.

North Fork 50mi course profile
Just a few miles in, I was on my own with plenty of groups ahead and behind of me, feeling like it was going to be a pretty solo day.  I've had a habit of listening to the ipod a lot lately. I'd loaded it up with podcasts and a go-to playlist, but decided to keep it stashed away and just enjoy what the trail had to offer. Great single track, sandy trails, a mix of very open exposed burn scar areas and beautiful aspen groves. Ultras have become a throwback for me from long days backpacking/mountaineering, where just the pleasure of traversing a lot of ground is a huge satisfaction in itself. It was nice to feel connected with the ground again in that way.  Normally, most events don't give you that opportunity. But with ultras, even if someone is 15 seconds up the trail ahead of you they might be out of sight, so it still gives you that solitary feeling at times.

The first few hours rolled by very comfortably.  My nutrition was dialed in with the usual batch of wonder food Wendy helped create to fuel me as naturally as possible and away from any products/gels etc. After repeated episodes of GI problems, it's clear that there is almost nothing on the market (other than Skratch) that sits in my stomach well after a few hours.  It has to be solid food, slowly ingested that gets the job done. Today, this meant banana waffles with homemade hazelnut spread, sweet potato cakes and rice cakes, each wrapped in a handy 300 Kcal package for my hourly dose of nutrition.  I was on a regular schedule of a salt tab every hour and had a back up tube of glucose tabs for when the brain started to get foggy.

Descent to Buffalo Creek Aid Station
Coming into the aid station at 22 miles, I was feeling good after a big looped climb through the woods where I was able to run the whole way.  I knew the next 5 mile out-and-back section on the Colorado Trail was not as steep as some of the earlier climbs, and I was hoping the grade was such I could run out and cruise back to the Meadows aid station again for more fuel.

Oh how things can change quickly in an Ultra!  I must have gone from hero to zero in the space of a quarter mile on this section.  A few stumbles, including a toe stub that launched some massive hamstring cramps, the ever increasing oppressive heat and my favorite - the dreaded mosquito bite.  I suffer from skeeter syndrome and just last week had a bite from a deer fly that put a grapefruit-sized lump on my elbow.  What's worse than the swelling from the allergy is the nausea and bone pain it gives me for 4-5 days.  Having just gotten over the last episode, the last thing I wanted was a repeat performance happening during the race itself.

With my mood deteriorating, the turnaround point seemed to take an eternity to arrive and I didn't even care when they said I was sitting in 7th place when I pulled in.  Within 30 seconds, 3 fast moving runners showed up and I just stood there blankly staring at the food on the table and trying to figure out what to do next.  The only thing that made sense was packing as much ice as I could into my Buff headband and to start cooling off the internal temperature.  The dunk bucket they had also helped get some fluids on the skin, as I could already tell that the heat was affecting my appetite and fluid consumption.  The quads generate the most heat so I was focused on getting them as cold as possible with the sponges they had.  Cooling in this way was the mantra for the rest of the race.  It's the bane of big guys in endurance sports and the British blood still runs pretty blue when it comes to how adapted I feel, even having lived in CO for over 10 years.

The next 10 miles were pretty much some of the hardest miles I've ever logged.  Hands on knees, bent double at times, right on the edge of dry heaving.  Slow walking all the uphills.  Barely moving on the flats and downhills and a head that kept trying to convince me out of starting Leadville, and all the surrounding questions of why we decide to do this kind of thing.  With the trail being so quiet, it's so easy to just throw in the towel as the motivation seeps away into the dirt.  Without others around to help you along or stir the competitive juices, exhaustion mounts, and it's so easy to let the pace slip away. At mile 35 all I could think about is that it would still be 5 hrs to go if I couldn't raise the pace to more than a walk.  5hrs!  Even 5 minutes was seeming like an eternity.

Slowly, I finally arrived at the aid station at mile 38.  More ice, watermelon, ice, fig bars, ice, sunscreen, dunk bucket, water bottle squirts on the head, repeat.  Just as I was about to leave I saw 3 more runners coming down the trail.  Was it only me that was feeling this hot?  Years ago as a student, I used to work summers in remote hotels in Scotland and had a bad case of heat stroke one weekend after a long day climbing Munros.  While at first seeming fine, I collapsed at dinner service in a twitching heap. With the nearest hospital over an hour away, the local staff under the direction of a doctor had to submerge me in an ice cold bath for a couple of hours to get my temperature to regulate again. I'll never forget the feeling of being hot with fever while being completely immersed in cold water for that long. I was hoping that today I was just enough a head of the curve to avoid a repeat performance.

I needed to find a way to lift myself over the last 12 miles and quickly get to the finish.  We had a 4 mile downhill section to the next aid and then the last 1,000 ft climb before the descent to the finish.  I was trying every mental trick in the book and kept thinking about some recent running quotes to try and get some of the lethargy to lift, one of the funniest being, "If the bone's not showing then get going!" Others talk about getting the marble back in the groove and sticking to a rhythm, but it was only when considering music that I got the turnaround I was looking for.  It took me to the foot of the last climb before I decided to dig out the ipod and get some tunes cranking.  I'd been putting together a monster play list over the last year or so and had never really tried it out in a race before.  Turning up the volume at the beginning of that climb was like a lightning bolt to the senses, and as if with the flip of a switch my body became as fresh as at the start line. I'm not sure if it's music, coincidence, other competitors, finally feeling better, smelling the barn, or a combination of everything, but being able to run the whole of the last climb and fly down the descent seeing occasional stretches of 6 min/mi on the GPS was the most exhilarating feeling I've had in running.  Seeing miles 48, then 49 on the watch and wondering how I could still be running hard after so many hours on the trail seemed to defy everything I expected to feel this late in a race

Ahh the finish always feels so good!
Running past the lake and on through the finish was one of my most enjoyable moments.  Giving Janice the race director a big sweaty hug topped off a race full of literal ups and downs in every conceivable way.  A brilliantly supported event, well organized, runnable, yet more challenging than you might expect in a gem of a park where the trail network is incredible.  Congratulations to all the runners and all the new folks I met, particularly Adam, Michelle and Chris - I hope to run into you guys again soon.

Well done to RD Janice and her crew for putting on a great event!
While ultra veterans will tell you stories about comebacks from the grave, huge turnarounds on the trail when all seemed lost, I'd never given it much thought until experiencing it first hand.  As runners, we listen to our bodies every day and are so in tune with every little nuance that it's so wonderfully surprising when you discover a 'bolt from the blue' that provides such a new life lesson.  As longtime Leadville RD Ken Chlouber famously quipped.  "You're better than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can".  Well said.

Strava link for anyone interested -

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