Monday, September 30, 2013

Wisconsin Trail Therapy and Cory's Ultra Race of Champions Experience

Last week I journeyed home to visit family and enjoy Wisconsin during it's one good season of the year. The trip was filled with horrible airport experiences, nostalgia, two-a-day running dates, lots of cute babies, and an unhealthy amount of beer and cheese. Since the general population could care less about my visit to Wisconsin and would rather hear about UROC I'll make this brief. 1) The Ice Age Trail is amazing and people in my hometown, though seemingly unaware of it's existence, are so lucky to have an incredible section pass through it. 2) Oxygen, though also amazing, made me run faster than I should have and now my shin splints are acting up. 3) If you thinking about visiting Wisconsin, there are about 30 miles of great trails in Blue Mounds State Park that will kick your ass. 4) The John Muir Trails near Whitewater are my new favorite find. 5) Don't be a preschool teacher or you will get impetigo.

My time in Wisconsin went too fast, but I was eager to return to Colorado to help Cory prep for his first 100k, UROC. As we drove up into the sleet/snowstorm on Friday, Cory was working through the normal nervous thoughts. He wished he had gotten in some more long runs. He wished he was feeling more rested. He was unsure how the snow would affect his performance but he was glad it wasn't going to be a hot day. When we arrived in Vail, he helped out at packet pick-up and got to meet some of the elites. Patagonia athlete, Luke Nelson, pretty much made his day when he told Cory that he was sure Cory would beat some of the elite field the next day. Eventually we headed back to Breck for the night and ate some pasta while watching Unbreakable.

Enjoying the Aspens but not the sleet

We were conveniently staying three blocks from the race start and so Cory was as relaxed as possible as we walked to the starting line. For the past few days he had semi-jokingly talked about how cool it would be to meet Geoff Roes. And when we got to the race start, there he was. Cory lingered nearby for an opportunity to meet Geoff and when the moment came, Cory introduced himself and then promptly forgot how to talk. When a star-struck introvert meets his extremely introverted idol, a little conversational assistance is needed. Seeing as it was 6:30am I tried to have Cory's back, but I think that if Geoff remembers us at all he will only remember us as awkward and babbling. At least he is somewhat smiling in this picture with Cory.

Cory and the Geoff

Ready to run

Soon the runners were off and we headed to Frisco (mile 13) for the first crew access point.  After waiting in the freezing cold - about 20 degrees with wind chill - for what seemed like hours, the first runners came in a little bit behind the predicted time. To get to Frisco they had to trudge through a lot of fresh snow. Surprisingly Jason Wolfe came in first followed by a pack of Rob Krar, Dakota Jones, Killian Jornet, and Sage Canaday. Other runners trickled in including a shirtless guy who's sole item of clothing was a pair of very short shorts. Not sure how he did it, but he finished in 9th. Cory predicted that he would come in at 2:30 but with so many runners coming in late, we were unsure how he was doing. Three minutes ahead of schedule, he came in with a smile and good spirits.  We gave him his trekking poles and he was off to the Copper Mountain Aid Station at mile 27.

Jason Wolfe leading the pack into Frisco

Rob Krar, Killian Jornet, and Dakota Jones staying together

When we got to Copper, we realized that it was going to be a day of waiting longer than expected. The race had predicted that the leaders would come into Copper at 10:22 and they weren't in until 11:15. Rob and Dakota came in first looking strong and then hiked up the next climb to Vail Pass. Then rolled in Killian and Sage. Cam Clayton was a little ways back, strategically running his own race. As for the women, Stephanie Howe came in first looking good but frazzled. Then came in Emelie Forsberg, smiling but tired. I must say that team Salomon has its aid station transitions down to a science. Finally Cory came in an hour behind schedule, which was actually pretty good considering that the leaders had been over an hour behind schedule. This is where he picked me up for 6 miles of pacing (I'm not a slacker, I just have my own race next weekend).

Heading out of Copper... yes right up that hill.

Going into the race, we had discussed what he wanted from me as his main crew person, and it was my understanding that he wanted someone to push him and keep him strong. The six miles from Copper to Vail Pass were almost entirely uphill, but it was on a bike path and so I was trying to help him maximize his time. He was cranky but had no complaints other than just behind tired. He did not respond well to being pushed and I started to realize that he was getting a taste of what I always feel like when I run with him. Sometimes running with your spouse is hard; they are the one person that you want to prove your toughness to. I thought he was doing great, but after the race he said this was his low point because the road was so boring and he was only halfway done.

I was worried about his pace, but all the guys around him were running just as slow. We talked to this guy named Gavin who runs for Pearl Izumi and then I stopped worrying about Cory because I knew he was exactly where he was supposed to be. They were around 35th place at this point. As we came into the Vail Pass aid station at mile 33, Geoff Roes was there manning the aid station and it was exactly what Cory needed for a mental boost. Our friend Jonah took on the pacing responsibilities for the next 30 miles. I was a little worried that Cory was in a mental low, but his stomach was feeling good and I was confident that he was going to get a second wind. He is a smart and consistent runner.

Kristen and I headed to the Minturn aid station at mile 52 where we knew we had a lot of waiting. The leaders started rolling in over an hour and a half behind schedule.  First came Dakota with Rob on his heels and the Cam Clayton shook things up and came in ahead of a very tired Killian.  When fifth place came in, everyone was surprised... not many people knew who he was. It was a smiling Ryan Ghelfi giving the town of Minturn his best beauty pageant wave. Finally Sage Canaday came in after having battled stomach problems all day. As for the women, Emily Forsberg had taken a commanding lead and Stephanie Howe came in looking like she wanted to quit. I talked to Cassie Scallon a bit who said that she had seen Stephanie in tears throughout the day. Props to that bad-ass lady. Quitting must not be in her vocabulary.

Stephanie Howe coming into Minturn.

Mayla tried to beg Kristen for food but fell asleep.

This Minturn woman and her golden retriever serenaded the runners for hours.

Shortly after 5 pm I started getting pretty antsy about Cory. Only about 15-20 runners had come in and so surely we had a while to wait. I met Gavin's parents who were relieved to know that I had seen Gavin a ways back. I gave them a report and we used their iPhone to check the live athlete tracking. Unfortunately it hadn't updated since Vail Pass where I had handed Cory over to Jonah. The sun was going down and so few runners had been through. I kept pacing a mile up the road to warm-up and cheer people on. Near the trail road junction I met a girl who was waiting for her boyfriend. He was also running with us near Vail Pass so I gave her an update on how he had looked. We started seeing a few of the runners who had been shortly ahead of our men, and so we started getting more and more anxious. Finally around 7 pm I saw Cory heading down the trail.

When you are waiting around forever with other people's friends and family, a funny thing happens. You want their runners to do well, but you get jealous when they get to see their runner and you are still waiting for yours. I could feel their panic as Cory came in and their guys were nowhere to be seen. Cory hadn't seen Gavin since Vail and said that the other guy, Jay, had been having stomach problems and so his poor girlfriend started to freak out. Cory was tired but was feeling much better than he was back at Vail Pass. It took him awhile to get out of the aid station, but when he got on his way, he was determined to get this race over with as soon as possible. The last rays of sun were painting the sky and running in the dark is no fun.

Kristen and I headed to the Vail finish line to wait a few more hours. They had just finished up the awards ceremony even though only three women had come through. After the awards the place felt deserted. Nowhere comfortable to relax. The only warm place to sit with our pup was in a vestibule in the main building. A few minutes later Bryon Powell and Meghan Hicks of iRunFar came in and made it their last hub before calling it a night. It was fun to meet them and see them work.

Finally, 14 hours and 21 minutes after starting his journey Cory crossed the finish line in 33rd place overall and as the 28th man. In the final few miles he had passed 5 people including The North Face athlete, Helen Cospolich. Only 5 girls chicked him. Pretty impressive. And true to Luke Nelson's guess Cory beat a few of the "elites." Cory was one of the most smart and consistent runners I saw out there. Of the 142 starters, only 78 finished. That's a 55% finishing rate. Goes to show what a tough day it was.

Post-race breakfast of champions at the Arapahoe Cafe in Dillon.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Fake cops and Floods

Pain can be a good sign and pain can be a bad sign. As you increase your mileage, your body goes through a variety of aches that usually mean that you are improving and building. But as you begin to reach your limit you start experiencing the bad kind of pain. It's hard to explain how to tell the difference, but I think that your body gets to a point towards the end of a season where it just tells you that you are done. Of course, you can continue to push it, but it won't be fun.

Well I guess I'm in that place right now. It's been a downward progression since the 50k in August where every training run feels like work. Mentally and physcially I just feel like it's time to be done for 2013. Even during the half marathon my body just felt tired. I guess I'm just trying to maintain my fitness without getting hurt. I'm trying oh-so-hard to stretch it out until the beginning of October for my last race of the season, the Blue Sky Marathon.

Since I last wrote we've had a few adventures. Two weekends ago we went to Leadville so that Cory could put in some training miles with the guy who's going to pace him for UROC. We wanted to see what the hardest part of the 100-mile course was like so we planned to do Twin Lakes to Winfield and back. From Twin Lakes you ascend 3,500 feet over Hope Pass in about 5 miles. Then you descend about 2,500 in 2 miles and have a few more miles out to the turn-around. Then you get to come back.

Happy puppy on the way to Leadville

The world's most photographed cops...

Cory and Jonah were planning to do the whole 20 miles and I was planning to do 16-18. When we planned for the day, we didn't exactly know that we were going to be doing so much climbing. It was kind of a last minute thing. So that morning we left Mayla in the car (she's the one cattle dog in the world that hates running) and it was supposed to be a fairly cool day with temps starting in the low 40s and getting up to about 60. Maybe we are bad dog owners but we thought that would be fine. Plus I thought I would be back in 5 hours tops.

Well, the run started off with getting lost. When we hit the river/creek we got confused and thought that we had gone the wrong way, so we backtracked to the road and ran some pavement before hitting a nearby trailhead that Jonah knew of. Then we did a few extra miles of trail before finally hitting the section of the course that ascends Hope. I was already feeling pretty tired... bad sign. And I was super hungry and had a burger craving, which was weird since we were running at 10,500 feet at 8am. I usually have no appetite at all.

The guys went ahead and Kristen and I stuck together. By the time we reached to top I had chowed through most of my food and I knew that if I went much farther I was going to run out. Plus it had taken us much longer than expected and it felt like it was getting much hotter than 60 degrees so I started to worry about Mayla. About this time I also admitted to Kristen something that had been scaring me all week. My metatarsal pain from March was acting up again and I felt like I was walking that fine line of not getting a stress fracture. All week I thought that if I ignored it, it would go away.

Kristen was planning to turn around at the top anyway and I didn't really want to run alone, so we both headed back down. I was a little frustrated with myself, but I knew my body was trying to tell me to take it easy.  As we got back to the car I envisioned swarms of people around it trying to get PETA on the phone, but instead there was just a happy and mildly hot pup. We splashed around in the creek and waited for the guys who were experiencing there own suffering. Cory felt good, but Jonah had blown his quads on the descent to Winfield so coming back took them a lot longer than expected.
A great view and Cory reflecting the power of the sun (at least he's not going to get skin cancer)

After filling up at Mountain High Pies, I decided that I was going to take a few days off of running. This plan worked out well since the rain started on Wednesday. By Thursday the Front Range was in full-on flood mode and one of my favorite parks (Apex) was shut down until further notice because the trails were so flooded and washed out. By Friday I couldn't take it anymore. I had to run. So I ran 20 miles. Seemed reasonable. Really I wanted to see what the flood carnage was really like in my area. I had seen enough sensationalist media.

I ran from my house over Green Mountain and by the time I got to the top I was soaked. The trails were like tiny creeks so I just splashed my way through them. Quite refreshing actually. Coming down Box o Rox was the most adventurous with a few washed out sections. Then I crossed 470 and ran up and over Dinosaur Ridge and the descent on the other side was pretty wet and silty. I had bricks caked to my shoes. When I got to the creek crossing in Matthews/Winters there were 4 people lingering by the bridge getting in my way. I asked them if the trail was closed and then they sized me up and told me I would be the last person allowed to cross the bridge and that it might be barricaded when I got back.

All in all M/W wasn't in too bad of shape. The creeks were a little swollen but it was nothing like the flooding that I've seen pictures of elsewhere. On the way back the sun came out for a bit, only to hide again for the rest of the weekend. Now I'm sure that I never want to live in the Pacific NW.

On Sunday I did another 10 miles around Green Mountain in the pouring rain. It felt like I had been transported to the Scottish Highlands. I was eerily surrounded by fog the entire time. Now I know what it's like to run inside a cloud.

So this is Scotland but this is what running in the Front Range has been like the past few days.

Well, despite taking four days off, my foot still really hurts. I'm going to Wisconsin in a few days where nothing is going to get in the way of me running the Ice Age Trail. Then Cory has UROC and I have my marathon. And then sweet rest!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

How we can protect our trails as trail-running increases in popularity

In light of the heated discourse that's been raging in the Colorado trail-running community about a certain 100-mile race that I won't name... but it's name contains the element Pb... I think it's very appropriate that Trail Runner Magazine posed this question for it's blog symposium: As trail running grows in popularity, how should races adapt to prevent overcrowding on the trails?

Taking a stab at this question is difficult because people like to pick a fight no matter what race directors decide to do. Races that cap it's entries to a limited number are faced with a dilemma when the race becomes popular. Every year there are a bunch of whiners who complain about various race lottery systems. On the other hand, races that allow too many entrants leave a wasteland of destruction as their legacy.

When races allow more entrants past the "carrying capacity" of the environment, dealing with the needs of those people becomes a logistical nightmare. What it comes down to is being able to identify what those needs are going to be and coming up with solutions that protect our beloved trails.

The first need is for lodging for runners and their crews. A lot of races have a lodging sponsor, but let's face it, a lot of us trail-running vagabonds can't afford to stay in a nice "discounted" hotel or we just don't want to. An alternative would be for the race-director to reserve a number of nearby campsites for runners and crew. I admit that camping is not for everyone. The race director could enlist runners in the community to put up racers and crew in their homes and in exchange offer reduced entry fees or, if it's a popular race, they could offer preferred entry for the next year. The major win in both of these situations is that out-of-town racers will develop a connection to the community and will probably respect the environment better on race day. Local economies will still be buffered by the race because inevitably many people will still choose to stay in a hotel.

Another major need is for transportation. Parking is literally a nightmare for many race directors. I ran a race this year where the RD posted a carpool board for runners to link up on race morning. We were only allowed to park in the lot near the starting line if we had three or more runners in the car. She sent out frequent emails saying that she was having bad dreams at night because she was so worried that people weren't going to carpool. But it worked beautifully! Obviously it is more convenient for everyone to wake up, hop in their cars, and only worry about their own needs, but when there are incentives to getting to a race in a manner that is better for the environment, people will act accordingly.

For trail races 50 miles and over, transportation can become even more of a headache because crews are trying to move between aid stations. Let's take that race I was alluding to earlier; there were 944 starters this year with 497 finishers. Some runners tough it out with a crew of zero while others might have five or more people helping them. If we average that out to three crew members per runner, then there were initially over 2,800 crew members driving around the course. So what happened was that there were long lines of traffic on the dirt-roads leading to the aid stations with panicked crew members almost hitting runners as they tried to find parking. With big races, it's hard to get around this. Of course, if there were fewer runners to begin with, there would be less of a problem. If a race insists on being big, then they probably have the funding to offer shuttles that go between aid stations. Everyone is going to the same places, after all.

Let's move on to the need for disposing of nutrition/hydration waste. More and more races are becoming cup-free races, meaning that they require you to bring your own bottle to refill at aid stations. Often they will still have cups for soda and sports drinks, but most races choose recyclable cups and some are even using real cups and doing post-race dishes! The biggest problem, though, is that races aren't adamant enough about runners only throwing away trash at aid stations in designated receptacles. It's a familiar scene at big races with gel packets strewn all over the course. This is something that the nutrition industry could start to combat as well. Companies like Hammer and EFS produce flasks in which you can carry multiple servings of nutrition and then you can re-use the flasks for your next run. If we, as consumers, started looking for alternatives to single-serving energy products then companies would start making more environmentally friendly options.

There's also the essential need of disposing of human waste. Hey, we all have got to do it and since it is uncomfortable to talk about race organizers ignore it and send hordes of un-educated people who are about to experience exercise-induced IBS into the pristine wilderness. What can races do to combat this? Brief people before the race and tell people that they need to go a certain distance off trail and that they need to either pack out TP or bury it depending on how sensitive the environment is. Once it is talked about, people feel less awkward about it. Races can provide port-a-potties at aid stations and where that is not possible they can provide trowels for people to run off and do their business. Another wild idea: I've been on group backpacking trips where we dig a big hole for the entire group to use and in some national parks they will have these designated areas as well. You go in the hole, you deposit your TP and sprinkle it with some dirt, and then it's ready for the next person. Races could dig these holes periodically alongside the course and mark them with signage. Then at the end of the race, send someone to go fill them in.

Finally, there's a need for basic education of trail preservation. Trails get muddy all of the time. What do uneducated runners do? They run alongside the trail to avoid the mud, therefore widening the trail. It's best for the environment not to run on muddy trails, but race directors can't exactly control the weather. The same great race that I mentioned early that encouraged carpooling also was adamant about runners not going off trail during the race. This race siphoned runners onto single-track after less than a half mile causing a huge back up. When runners tried to cut the line and go off trail, there were plenty of people to yell at them. When you think about it, during races longer than a marathon you're going to be out there long enough that cutting the trail to pass people in the beginning isn't worth it.

It's really all about having a basic respect for a place. If you lived near a wilderness area and a bunch of people came and pooped everywhere, widened the trail, and trashed the place would you be happy? A lot of races hosted by locals do a good job of encouraging responsible trail use. If you hear of a race organization that isn't conducting itself in an environmentally-friendly way then there is one very powerful thing you can do. Don't run it. If it's a smaller organization then you could always send the RD a friendly note with some suggestions. You could even start your own race using some of these suggestions! The more races there are, the more options people have, and the less crowded each individual race will be.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Black Squirrel Half Marathon Race Report

It was the first running of the Black Squirrel Half Marathon in Fort Collins and it was a great event. Were there black squirrels? Yes. More on that later.

With an 8am race start on a hot morning, everyone seemed pretty antsy to get started. As we waited for things to get going, it was intimidating how many intense people were there. At ultras you tend to expect a pretty fit crowd, but at half marathons there is usually a more diverse group. A group of pretty tough looking women were gathered near us and one woman said she was saving her legs for the Wasatch 100 the following weekend. Then another woman came running up and proclaimed that she had run 15 miles that morning. Others began to arrive on bicycles. I started to feel like a slacker.

I was a little nervous going into the race because I had gotten really sick the previous weekend and had just got off antibiotics. My whole body was still a little off and I was unsure of how my stomach would hold up. After coming off a DNF where I had dehydration issues I was determined to make hydration a priority since it was going to get into the 90s by mid-day. Since it was just a half marathon, I knew I could gut it out even if I was having a bad day. I'm not sure when 13 miles became "just" a half marathon to me. I remember my first half marathon and thinking that it would never be possible for me to run another mile. Now it's a pretty routine training run.

The race finally got going with a mile of dirt road before about 1,500 feet of ascending. It was a pleasant climb with bits of shade and lots of switchbacks. The trail was pretty smooth and so it was quite runnable. I got caught up in a train of grunting men and a few tough ladies and probably went a little faster than I should have. No one seemed to be having fun, which I thought was a problem, so after about 3.5 miles I drifted off the back of the train to get in my own groove. I was running out of water, but I knew the first aid station was close.

Another train started to catch me and I sure as hell wanted to stay ahead of them, so I pushed on. Soon we came to the aid station where I promptly dumped the rest of my bottle on my head and refilled. It was already so hot. We had about 1.5 more miles of uphill, but it was double track, so the trains dispersed and people did their own thing. I took a gel and had to walk a bit to digest it. I felt a little sick but I'm glad I kept it down because the rest of the race was so hot that there's no way I could have eaten anything.

The descent was fun and comfortable. Not too steep and not too rocky. This is where I saw my first black squirrel. She was over five feet tall and instructed us which way to go. This was probably the best part of the race. But really, that squirrel costume must have been so hot. Poor girl. I passed a few people on the downhill, but a few people also passed me so I'm not sure if my downhill skills are improving. I tried not too bomb it too much because I wanted to save some quads for the 5 miles of running in an oven that I knew we had to look forward to at the end.

I almost ran out of water again before the next aid station at mile 8.5 where another black squirrel was hopping around. Then we embarked on the "Death Valley Trail" as I heard one person call it. I hate flat stuff (it was rolling with about 500 feet of gain). I knew that to keep my spirits up I needed to start talking to the people around me. There were some great people. One guy was doing his first trail race. Another girl thought she had strep but decided to do the race anyway and then head to urgent care.

The best part, though, was when from behind me I hear, "Hey, Allisa." One of our friends, Brandon, had caught up to me and was running strong. I know you'll probably read this, Brandon, so thanks for helping me get those last few miles done. You definitely made me run faster!

A very happy Cory was there to cheer me on at the finish. He had finished in 2nd place in a time of 1:37. I was the 19th woman and I finished in 2:21. At the finish line I got to meet Nick Clark and I was regretfully rather sarcastic. He seems like a pretty salty guy himself, so I thought he could take some razzing. I said, "Now we know what it was like for you at Western States," and he didn't seem to like that. Clearly Western was much hotter and running a half in nothing like running a 100, but then I realized that he doesn't know me and therefore would not know I was kidding. Oh well.

Cory filled me in on his race and said he was happy, but obviously he would have liked to win. He led for a bit, but the other guy also named Corey, overtook him on the downhill. It was Corey's home turf and he was clearly very familiar with the course. Cory didn't eat anything and only had his bottle of Cytomax, but the other Corey didn't even have a bottle and there were no cups at the aid stations. Cory hoped this would slow Corey down at the end, but it didn't. They finished about a minute apart. I was pretty proud of my Cory.

The post-race party was hot but fantastic. Great food and great beer. Cory got a crazy black squirrel trophy that he loves and planted on our mantel. I didn't think I would have so much to say about a half marathon, but it was a great day.

Gear List

Shoes: Pearl Izumi Trail N2 - First race in them and they were AMAZING!
Clothes: Salomon Light Shorts and Runner Tank
Socks: Injinji Run 2.0
Nutrition: 1 Hammer gel