Sunday, September 18, 2016

Hiking Files: Surprised by Mount Tecumseh

I won't spend too much time on the why and the what of not posting here on the ToTR blog in a LONG time, but I will say that I am not doing much trail running lately.  In fact, it has been nearly two years since my last ultramarathon, which ironically was my 50k PR.  Especially ironic considering that nowadays I am perhaps in the worst shape I have been in all my life.  More on that some other time though.

This post is the first in a number of posts on my current pursuits on the trails.  You can take the running out of the trail runner, but you'll never take the trails away from me.  In full disclosure, this post should come later after a few others covering my recent adventures, because it is really just the last one in a succession of adventures this summer in the mountains, but you need to start somewhere, even if it is out of sequence.

Okay, all prefaces aside, let's get on with the adventure!

A little after 9:00 A.M. on Sunday, September 4th, I found myself standing at the base of the Waterville Valley Ski Area in New Hampshire.  With pack on back and poles in hand, I thought about how I was a little disappointed to be here and not walking along the Livermore Road trail on the way to the Tripyramids, but there was another part of me that realized deep down inside that this was the right decision for the day.

It was almost like the feeling one gets with a DNF during an ultra run; Sure, you aren't realizing the glory of the finish, but you are acting in a manner that is a bit of self-preservation play, so you can come back some other time to complete the ultimate goal on a day when you have the right stuff.

In all fairness, this hike was the second hike of a long weekend in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  The previous day was spent hiking to the top of Mount Garfield with my family, and because we were staying in Waterville Valley for the weekend, I had grand thoughts of snagging another 4000 footer or two while being in the area.  Given that the Tripyramids are a longer and more technical hike, I thought it would be a great option, since I could get a much earlier start.  One of the logistical issues of hiking the Whites for me is the 2 to 3 hour trip from Massachusetts to the trail head.  Already being 15 minutes from the Livermore Road trailhead, this would give more time to complete the roughly 12-13 mile trek without worrying about travel time to and from the trail.  The other upside was that the loop hike for the Tripyramids would allow bagging not one, but two, 4000 footers in the process (North and Middle Tripyramid).

I also had the option of doing the relatively short trip to the top of Mount Tecumseh, which is barely high enough to be on the 4000 footer lists, and is considered a walk one does when the weather isn't great and often times the second (and less exciting) part of a 4000 footer double day with Mount Osceola.  This is mainly the sentiment because the summit views are limited and the majority of the trek is among the trees.  Having bagged both Osceola and East Osceola last summer, I was leaning toward the excitement of the Tripyramids, not the perceived snoozer of a half day hike on Tecumseh.

As I sat in the room Saturday night plotting my route and checking mileage on the maps for the Tripyramids, I couldn't help but think about how rubbery my legs felt from climbing Garfield, how my hike on Sunday would be solo (breaking the 'hike with a buddy' rule), and just generally that I didn't know what I was getting myself into with the Tripyramids.  After searching online for trail reports and summaries, I found the general sentiment was that the Tri's were a tough hike, one report rating the difficulty as 'Sign the Will'.  I slept on it all, and when I woke up in the morning and realized I simply am not in the shape I need to be in to scramble up and down rock slides, I opted for Tecumseh.

So that is how I arrived here at the base of the Mount Tecumseh trail, looking forward to what I expected to be a gentle ascent up into the hills to snag another 4000 footer.
First time across Tecumseh Brook

Steps from the trailhead, a brook babbles across the trail without a bridge, and the hiker is forced to use rock-hopping skills from the get-go.  Across the brook, the trail gently rises up from a starting elevation of about 1900 feet, and about 15 minutes from the trailhead I encountered the first crossing the Tecumseh Brook, which resembled more of a dry river bed than a flowing brook.  

Having made it across the rocks, the trail became more like the terrain one would expect to find in the White Mountains - scattered with various rocks and roots, and nothing that warrants taking one's eyes off the ground very long, which is necessary to ensure each step isn't the last step before a trip and fall.  It really is what makes the trails of the White Mountains challenging, because you really have to think about most steps, turning 20 minute walking miles into 40 minute mountain miles.

Talk about roots!  
Steep down to the Tecumseh Brook...
Quite candidly, though, the first 1.1 miles of the Mount Tecumseh trail are quite serene and less technical  when compared with other mountain trails in the Whites.  While there were sections of roots and rocks to contend with, I felt like I was able to move faster than usual over this first half of the trail, and pushed the pace a little.  In checking the map, the trail only rises about 600 feet in this first section to the second crossing of Tecumseh Brook.

Nicely organized stones...
The serenity and peace of the hike was also due in part to the lack of others on the trail, in fact, while I did see a couple other hikers at the trailhead, all the contact I had during this first section were the birds and the wind blowing through the trees; It was perfect.

As I walked along this section, there were many parts where it seemed there was a lot of trail work done in the past, and the rocks were neatly organized to provide steps and staircases along the way:
Eventually the trail meandered down to the Tecumseh Brook for the second crossing, this time with more water to contend with:

At this crossing of the Tecumseh Brook, the trail takes a definite turn up in the difficulty category.  The Whites are famous for the aggressive straight line trails up the side of the mountain, using switchbacks and gentle grades only sparing.  On this ascent I wasn't really paying attention to mileage and elevation, as I was just trying to enjoy the trail and every step, and upon the crossing of the Tecumseh, I had a loose understanding that I was about halfway to the top.  With the first 1.25 miles in the book, being completed in 45 minutes, I generally felt fresh and happy, and the quicker pace and good time made me feel like I was flying.  Dare I say it felt easy??

Oh how the mountains remind you of how small you are!

Shortly after the second crossing of the Tecumseh there is a short, steep uphill, which leads to an intersection.  One way leads out of the woods to a view over the ski slopes of Waterville Valley, and in the other direction the trail does a sharp switch back, ominously showing the steepness and difficulty that lies ahead over the next mile:
Up AND over...
Time to pick a line...
You'd think stairs would help the steep... you're wrong.
I tried to continue to fast pack with an intentional pace up the mountain on this section of trail, but my heart was pounding like a tom-tom drum after the first 10 minutes of trying that.  I was still alone with my thoughts and the sounds of the forest, but the stress of exertion was making me paranoid that I was quietly being followed or stalked by something.  Shortly thereafter I came across the following large rock formation, which made what looked like a nice home for a large, meat-eating, animal, certainly not assisting with the quelling of my paranoia:

As I slowly moved higher and higher up the trail there was definitely more of a temptation to look at my Garmin to get an idea of how high I was on the mountain, and how much more of the steep climbing was left before the brutal ascent would end.  That is part of the experience with these smaller 4000 footers, you really don't get the alpine zone effect, where getting closer to the top means shorter trees and more clearings to catch an inspiring view to help bump your spirits and energy levels to climb higher.  Really the only encouragement were the cold breezes that, even if falsely so, seemed to show some progress in making it higher up the mountain.

I still hadn't seen or heard much in the way of humans and animals on the trail with me, short of this camouflaged fellow, who I had only spied because of how slow I was going up the trail:
Making better time than me!
Finally, after thoughts of hiking all the way to the top by myself, I had a bit of a shock when this random four-legged friend came out of nowhere to pass me; Not even a bark to let me know he needed the trail!  It was actually a nice surprise because while I couldn't see his human companion when I looked down the trail, he did the total hiking dog move, running 20 feet up the trail ahead of me, and then scampering back down the trail, disappearing back to the side of his human.  We played this game for about 20 minutes until he and his human left me in their dust about 3/4s of the way to the top.

After about an hour on this challenging section (only a mile in length), having climbed about 1300 feet in that hour, I finally reached the trail intersection with the Sosman Trail and the Summit Trail to the top of Tecumseh...

Riding the wave of relief that I was done with the steep part, I confirmed my direction with the map, and headed on what felt like a victory lap.  About 5 minutes further up the trail, I came to another trail intersection showing a couple different ways to the top, which felt like either a joke or a hallucination.
I think Alice had it easier in Wonderland!
At this point I checked my mileage and the map, and I was convinced I was far too close to get lost, but I had to make a decision, and it appeared that the left spur was the shortest way to the top.  Sadly, though, as I moved up this section, it was found to definitely be shorter, but more technical.  On the bright side it did afford some of the first views to the north and west.
Oh brother...
After clearing the craggy portion of the summit trail, I climbed over pine needle carpeted trails (nice), to finally come through the woods to the open porch of the Mount Tecumseh summit, overlooking Waterville Valley:
Initial view of the mountains and valley...
Had company on the top...
Panorama of the 'porch' view...
One of my fellow hikers at the top using the summit cairn... hiker fail.
Beautiful views north on a true bluebird day. 
The slide (also the trail!) up North Tripyramid... a reminder Tecumseh was the smart choice for me. 
When I arrived at the summit I was met by two others that were eating an early lunch.  In true "trail 'tude" form, I was greeted by the others instantly and we talked about our trips to the top, as they had come up via the Tripoli Rd. trail. As I sat back, feeling great to get the back off my back, I mentioned how I was pleased that it only took a couple hours to ascend.  I found my two new fast friends were cross fitters and had made MUCH better time than me, and then proceeded to bang out some burpees on the summit while we chatted.  You have to love how you meet all types on the trails!

Having no where to really be, I sat down and enjoyed my trail snacks and the fabulous views.  The other two had a dog with them, who wanted to share my Clif bar, and wasn't shy about his intentions.  As we continued to chat, another group of three made it to the summit, and shortly thereafter, another group of four arrived, and it became a little crowded for the small summit, but it was definitely a fun, social crowd.  By the time the next group of five showed to the summit, I realized I had been lounging for about 45 minutes enjoying the views and the conversation, and decided it was time to head down to the valley.

I wanted to go back the other way on the summit loop to try to avoid the craggy rocks on the summit trail that I had ascended, and headed back down the trail, looking for an obvious intersection.  Finding an unmarked trail going left, I assumed this was the right way.  As I moved down the trail, I found some great views east toward the ski resort, but no trail...
Heading back down the mountain from the summit...
Trail's end...
Panorama of the view south and east...
Ski free!
Zoom of the lakes region beyond the cell tower at the top of the Waterville Valley slopes.  (Not a level shot, embarrassed as a photographer, but a cool shot). 
Once I realized I was lost, I headed back to the summit, on what turned out to be just a 15 minute side trip.  I resolved that the end-around path to the summit going the other direction was down the Tripoli Road trail, and I saw the rocky descent down that trail from the summit, and just decided to head back the way I came.

The descent was pleasant, and I made it to the intersection with the Sosman Trail and the Mt. Tecumseh Trail in about 10 minutes.  I decided that since I had no where to be once I got to the bottom, I'd stay on top for a while and explore the Sosman Trail.

The Sosman Trail is a spur trail on the top of Tecumseh that leads to the top of the ski slope at Waterville Valley.  At a half mile in length one way, I figured a bonus mile was well worth the adventure, and looking at the map, there really wasn't much elevation change from where I was at the trail intersection.

The terrain on the trail was really pleasant with a few rocks, but mostly pine needle carpet.  It inspired me to run a little bit, even with the weight of my big hiking pack on my back.  There was one section that was a bit technical, but provided a nice technical change, and a cool view of knob that is the summit of Tecumseh:
From the top of the technical section of the Sosman.
View of Tecumseh's summit knob.
Eventually the Sosman Trail opens to a clearing with a cell tower, and then a short wooded section leads to the top of the ski slope at Waterville Valley.  The Sosman Trail is definitely a recommend if you make the trip up to the top of Tecumseh, as it provides a few clearings with overlooks, including one with a hidden bench for weary hikers...
Top of Waterville Valley Ski Area

Shameless selfie... maybe I can get the chairs running to take the easy way down.
Downhill, with the Tripyramids taunting me in the background.
Cell service was great :-)
One of the views Sosman provides.
Here you're resting?
I was actually surprised as I made my way back to the Mount Tecumseh trail intersection because there were a lot more people heading up the Sosman Trail from the summit.  As it turns out, many people will hike to the top of Tecumseh, then take the Sosman Trail to the top of the ski area, and follow the ski trails all the way down to the parking area in order to avoid the steep and rocky terrain on the descent.  There was a part of me that considered it for a moment, but I felt that was too easy, and not in the spirit of hiking up and down the real trail.

The descent on the 'steep and rocky' was actually really fun and great training with using my trekking poles on descents.  The steep trail provided moments where I was moving so fast I felt like I was slaloming down the slopes, but it felt like a controlled chaos because there always seemed to be rocks to make the next step, and it was easy to pick and follow a line.
Dropping down fast!
Follow the steps...
Rock to rock...
As I made it down to the vista of the ski slope and the end of the steep, challenging section, I was crossing paths with many hikers that were headed up the mountain, and it was a bit awkward to answer their "Not too much further, right?" questions when we passed.  I definitely didn't want to ruin the surprise for them (or dissuade them from continuing on), but just encouraged them to keep moving up, and the view at the top is totally worth the effort.

The afternoon light changed the appearance of the forest, and the same trail I had traversed in the morning seemed different in the life of the afternoon and the additional people on the trail.  It really is one of the small, yet magical, parts of spending a day on the trails, because the same stretch of trail can change drastically with different light, or just generally a different vibe when experiencing it during a different part of the day.

From the vista switchback, I headed down the short steep trail section to the water at the Tecumseh Brook crossing and took a few extra minutes to relax and dunk my bandanna in the cold water for a refreshing break.

From there I walked for a while with a couple that was moving at about the same pace, and we clicked off the last mile quickly, making it back to the dry crossing of Tecumseh Brook in what seemed like very little time.  It was definitely a nice landmark to reach because I knew I was almost home!
I can smell the barn, and the post hike pizza!
Inspired, my weary legs quickly moved down the rest of the trail, over the small brook crossing, and out of the woods to the parking lot.  As I looked to my left upon exiting the trail, again the Tripyramids loomed, beckoning me to come take the challenge.  I laughed a little, because Tecumseh provided a great day of hiking and adventure, and was a fantastic choice for this beautiful day.

Some other day, Tripyramids...
With the completion of Tecumseh, I add another peak to my list of bagged peaks in pursuit of the New Hampshire 4000 footers, the New England 4000 footers, and the New England 100 Highest lists.  Once again, hiking in the Whites has proved to me that one cannot expect anything when they head out on the trail, because each trail has its own personality and provides a unique experience.

Tecumseh was a great day of adventure, and provided a nice capstone to a weekend with two summits, and a third weekend in a row where I have had the privilege to be hiking in the Whites.

Tecumseh by the Numbers

Mount Tecumseh, Elevation 4,003 ft.
NH 4000 footers: #6 of 48 (Tecumseh elevation rank 48th)
NE 4000 footers: #7 of 67 (Tecumseh ranked 67th)
NE 100 Highest: #7 of 100 (Tecumseh ranked 67th)

Start time:  9:20 a.m.
End time: 2:44 p.m.
Trip time:  5 h, 24 m

Ascent: 1:58
Descent (minus Sosman): 1:38
Sosman Spur (Round Trip): 0:31

Total Distance covered (Garmin): 6.55 mi., Map Miles: 6 mi.

Starting Elevation:  ~1850 ft.
Summit:  4003 ft.
Gain-Loss: ~2153 ft.

Hike Log - Time & Distances

Trailhead   0.00 mi.   9:20 a.m.
Tecumseh Brook Crossing   1.13 mi.   10:05 a.m.
Intersection Sosman Trail / Mt. Tecumseh Trail   2.2 mi.   11:01 a.m.
Mount Tecumseh Summit  2.72 mi.   11:18 a.m.
Leave Summit   2.72 mi.   12:04 p.m.
Leave Summit after wandering to view   2.82 mi.   12:18 p.m.
Intersection Sosman Trail / Mt. Tecumseh Trail   3.34 mi.   12:30 p.m.
End of Sosman /Ski Slope Top   3.84 mi.   12:45 p.m.
Leave Sosman / Ski Slope Top   3.84 mi.   1:02 p.m.
Intersection Sosman Trail / Mt. Tecumseh Trail   4.35 mi.   1:18 p.m.
Tecumseh Brook Crossing   5.42 mi.   2:05 p.m.
Leave Tecumseh Brook Crossing   5.42 mi.   2:08 p.m.
Trailhead   6.55 mi.   2:44 p.m.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Changes in Season

I realize that the last time I wrote anything in this space I had just finished perhaps one of the toughest races and experiences of my life as a runner.

I have been thinking about that experience, as well as this blog.

I have thought about ceasing this blog and starting something new, something more befitting of my aspirations in running.  In fact, yesterday, while showering after my run, I knew I wanted to write again, but I wondered if this space had too much history and too much personality, that my new endeavors and ideas could only exist in another space.

After rolling this idea around in my head for about the 10th time in the last month, it finally dawned on me that this couldn't be further from the truth.

As people, we all change.  Our thoughts change.  Our values change.  We are changed by the experiences we have to endure -- things that we may see coming, but mostly, and most profoundly, those we do not see.

So with this blog, I embrace the change.  Know that I am a runner who loves trails, and trails will still be a big part of the blog.  But also know that I am an ultra runner, too.  I am also a runner interested in running faster and getting stronger and improving myself as a person.  These things may show up here, too.  So, yes, I want this blog to be about trail gear, trail shoes, and trail adventures.  But this blog is going to also serve as a sounding board for speed work, road work, and other things that may not fit a 'totally trail' theme.

So where have a been since last summer?

First, I had the honor of helping a good friend of mine train and complete his first marathon.  I gave him the plan, he did the work, I taught on the run during our weekend long training runs together with regard to pacing and fueling, and then we ran together during the big day (sort of, a long story there) at the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon.  We conquered...

I could write another three posts about this experience and what it meant for me to see one of my friends go from a prospective marathoner, to a finisher.  There was absolutely a moment during the training where I wasn't sure if he'd be able to do it, but the next weekend I did one of those coach, 'why don't we try this', and it made all the difference.  It was actually only a few weeks before the marathon, and I was mulling over the thought of talking with my friend about deferring to next year and taking a shot a doing a longer training plan.  Thankfully we never had that conversation, and now he's a marathoner!

Second, following Rockfest, I helped pace another friend for a bit of Stone Cat, and generally spent the time being around the race and not IN the race.  I learned that pacing isn't just about showing up and going along with your runner.  I also learned that as much as you THINK you know a course like the back of your hand, you really need to make sure you know what you are doing.  Again, another blog post could be dedicated to that!  In the end, I spent the day seeing people accomplish great things there at the finish line of Stone Cat, and it really made me appreciate the trail running community more.

Third, I found myself trying to be a runner on vacation in Florida and failing.  I had hoped that I'd be able to soak up the sun at Disney, and start each day running around the resort.  Instead, I found lots of late nights, lots of really good food, lots of walking around theme parks, and very little time to actually run.  It was mostly a time for family fun, and I was so very happy to have the experience of a lifetime during a very good week in Florida. 

Finally, shortly after arriving back from Florida I developed a nasty injury in my back.  I spent 6 weeks trying to figure out the injury myself - FAIL.  Then I went to my doctor, go it checked out, made sure nothing was broken, and then found my way into 6 weeks of physical therapy.  Thankfully, I found the right physical therapist for me, who was not only focused with treating the symptoms, but also FIXING the issue and teaching me how to do things to make sure I don't get injured again.  The 6 weeks of PT got me started on strengthening muscle groups and correcting muscle imbalances. 

Since 'graduating' from PT a few weeks ago, I have been thinking about what will be next.  To tell you the honest truth, I am not all that concerned.  I am signed up for the TARC 100 Miler in June, but I am not sure there is any way I can show up and cobble together an effort worth of a finish. 

Aside from TARC, I committed to do the Ragnar Cape Cod Relay with some friends from college, and am ELATED that I'll be showing up with enough fitness to do my job for the team.

Honestly, the last three or four weeks have been all about loving the run.

Four weeks ago, I forced myself to spend three hours in the woods on snowy trails, three weeks ago I ran the same course, and the trails had been ravaged with recent snow and it was hard and cold and fantastic.  Two weeks ago I ran the same course, and managed to cover 20 miles in what was likely a PR for me regarding time on trails (I was also in LOTS of pain afterwards).  Last weekend, I spent some great time running long in the dark at Lynn Woods with some of my trail friends, and then the highlight of this weekend was running a simple 12.5 mile Stone Cat loop at Willowdale with another good trail friend.

With all that said, I am learning to embrace the changing seasons of life as a runner, and, most importantly, I am learning again to simply love the run!

Happy Trails!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Race Recap - Around the Lake Ultra - 24 Hours

On July 27th I toed the line at the ‘Around the Lake’ Ultra in Wakefield, MA, with aspirations of completing my first 24 hour race.  A couple week removed from the race I continue to ponder the question of whether or not timed races are harder than those that have a set distance.  After dropping in this race, just shy of the 12 hour mark, I have another bit of evidence that timed races are indeed harder.  So why do I keep signing up for them?  I guess the answer is simply that my life as an ultra runner started with a timed race, and as much as I want to stay away from timed races, there is a part of me that feels a loyalty to the race format.

It all started with the G.A.C. Mother’s Day 6-Hour back in 2009 (Has it really been three years???).  It was my first official attempt at becoming an ultra runner, which was moderately successful, covering 27 miles – above marathon – but not exactly what most would consider a true ultra distance (27 can be construed as running a marathon and getting lost for a couple minutes and retracing your steps).  Either way, I was on the course for 5 hours and 57 minutes, which was nearly 2 hours longer than any long run I had ever attempted.  Distance wise it was barely a keeper, but the time on feet made it harder than anything I had ever done, which, in effect, made it an ultra for me.

Since then I have only run one other timed race, the TARC Spring Thaw 6 Hour this past March.  Much like my experience at G.A.C. Mother's Day, I was out there for nearly all of the six hours, but I only covered 25.5 miles.  I am not about to dignify running two timed races and four distance-oriented ultra marathons (two 50k’s & two 50 Milers) as an adequate sample size, but I have had far more success enduring to the end of races where I know the finish exists at a certain mile marker.

This made a race strategy for the 24 Hour Around the Lake next to impossible to generate. 

Nevertheless, in training runs before the race I did all of the needful things, like experiment with different foods and run-walk strategies, and came to the race feeling like I knew what to do, even if I didn’t have a set plan.

Waking up the Friday of the race I felt like I had so much left to do ahead of the start.  I had spent the past two weeks making lists and gathering supplies, but everything was basically piled up in a corner in need of some organizing.  To make matters worse, I kept finding random items that I knew I'd need and hadn't yet gathered or bought.   All day I was under the strange feeling of trying to prepare, knowing the whole time that there would likely be no night of sleep, restless or otherwise, between race prep and the start.  In fact, I had hoped to get a nap before heading to Wakefield, but standing in line at the grocery store at 2 p.m. I knew that nap just wasn't going to happen.

A view of Lake Q...
We left for Wakefield at 4, stopped briefly to buy a cooler and a tarp, and eventually landed at the lake slightly before 5:30.  I wasn't dressed in my running gear yet, and my first tasks at the lake were to get the tent put up and try to organize base camp a little... sure, race related, but it just felt like this was 'other' stuff I had to get done before I could get myself squared away.  To  top it all off I was not in my running gear yet.  All things seemed rushed; I didn’t want to be rushed.  Not tonight.  

Welcome to the Hotel Shamrock
Thanks to some great help from Mike St. Hillaire and his family, eventually ‘Hotel Shamrock’ was set up and organized.  I quickly got geared up and made sure I had bottles of Perpetuem made up for laps 2, 3, and 4.  
As I readied the aid table in the Hotel Shamrock, a familiar face appeared in the entry way – Jeff Lane!  Okay, so admittedly this made me a little star struck, because Jeff is one of those super cool trail folks I know, but didn’t really think knew me all that well.  His and Greg Esbitt’s Fells video from a few years ago is legendary to me as it made me want to be an ultra runner even more, and I really respect the 'Nougats'.

Nougats Fells video here: 

Getting 'Hammered' before the start!  
So yeah, a little ‘fan boi’ moment for me when Jeff says, “What’s up Rob?”  We chatted for a little while and he offered to join me for a few laps later on in the race.  This started a theme of me coming to the race woefully unprepared as far as things like crew and pacers were concerned, but the kindness of friends proved to eclipse these shortcomings.  If I accomplish anything from this post and race report, I want to thank Jeff, Breakheart Dan, Keri Haskins, Glen Green, Bill Howard, Steve Latour, Julie O’Mara, Mike St. Hillaire, and my wife, Jen, for their assistance with pacing, moral support, and putting up with me during this event.

As the time drew near for the race briefing and the start, the gloom of the day’s overcast began to break and give way to evening sunshine.  The temperature was nice, in the upper-70’s, but the high humidity made it very soupy, and we hadn’t even started running yet.

Standing and chatting with Julie O. before the race I felt ready, but still had that nasty feeling of being rushed.  I hoped this feeling would pass after the gun went off.  

The start was minutes away and I made sure I had my timing chip (check), race number (check), tunes (check), and water bottle.... AND WATER BOTTLE!?!?  Rushed indeed, as the most important item I'd need was sitting back in the Hotel Shamrock, which thankfully wasn't too far from where we were gathered for the start. 

ALL SYSTEMS GO!!... and we were off.

During the initial loop everyone follows the same add-on out and back off of the actual race course to get the marathoners their extra distance, so at the completion of their 8th and final loop they have exactly 26.22 miles.  I heard some of the 12 and 24 hour runners complaining about this, but I figured a marathon split time would be a good indicator of what kind of day I was having.  Not to mention, everything after that 8th loop would in the realm of ‘ultra’ and for the 12 and 24 hour participants the question becomes, ‘how deep are you willing to go?’

The first loop was filled with a lot of the same experiences as other races – jockeying for position early, trying to find a groove, and getting to know the personality of the course.  Mike St. Hillaire and I started the race together, and his plan was to use a 10 minute run, 5 minute walk approach for as long as he could sustain it.  I, on the other hand, had little in the way of an allegiance to any run-walk ratio.  I stuck together with Mike and his friend Keri, for the first couple of miles, but eventually Mike’s running pace, and my lack of commitment to 10-5, saw Mike pulling ahead.

One down.....?? to go!
Around the Lake for the first time, I came into the timing chute and crossed the mats with a group of other runners.  Looking down at my watch I saw just over 48 minutes, which was just about 12 minute per mile pace.  Not exactly the 13 minutes per mile I had hoped to start off at.

Once across the timing mats I ran over to Hotel Shamrock to find that my crew had already abandoned me.  I marked off the time on my lap board, grabbed a couple stinger gels and a new bottle of Perpetuem from the cooler, and headed out on to the second lap.

Loops two and three were right around the same pace, as I was still trying to work out a strategy and get into a groove.  As I was finishing loop two I ran right by Breakheart Dan and Jeff Lane, only realizing it was them a few hundred meters after I had passed.  Thankfully I caught up with them on the other side of the lake on loop three, and was able to stop and chat with them for a few minutes.  Seeing Dan out there was also a really big boost for me.  He has been down with injuries for months now, but he is one of the people I met early on in my career as a trail runner.  He knew me before I was even a marathoner, and has been one of the many friends, including all of The Ultra Gang, that has served as a source of inspiration and support throughout my journey as a runner. 

As I started the fourth loop, I noticed my split was about 2 hours and 10 minutes for 10.36 miles, which was well below the 13 min. per mile pace.  I also found myself running on my own and, thus, itching to get to the iPod for support, then, as I increased the volume on a song, my iPod blinked out!!  A minor inconvenience for most days, but during a race, this was bordering on devastating.

This loss of tunes led to the first low moment of the day.  I am not sure if it was the setting sun or the loss of music, but as I made my way around the lake I was left to my thoughts.  I kept thinking about the time and how much longer I had to go, and how I hadn’t been using much of a strategy.  I was definitely my own worst enemy here.  As I started feeling slight discomfort in my legs, my mind made this more epic than it should have been, and started to dread the night… and the next day.

Darkness took over quickly during this loop, and even though Wakefield is a suburban community with well lit streets, there are places where a head lamp was helpful.  I finished this loop in the doldrums, handed off my iPod to the wife to see if she could get it going with the car charger, grabbed another bottle of Perpetuem, and started off on loop five.

The next few loops continued in a seemingly uneventful manner.  I was lucky to have support from others that helped me click off the miles.  Jeff joined me as a pacer for a while, which was absolutely a huge benefit to me.  Prior to the race I had seen pacers as being highly over-rated, but nothing makes the mileage slide by when you have someone to chat with, taking your thoughts away from every little discomfort or negative thought.  Jeff’s pacing was huge for me, and those laps of the race were not the fastest on the clock for me, but they were certainly the easiest.  Jeff volunteering to run a number of laps with me was even more of a classy thing to do considering he had run and finished the Vermont 100 the previous weekend!

Around 11 or 12, Jen eventually had enough of the Hotel Shamrock and the crew life and I told her I’d be able to get by through the night on my own.  She made up a few bottles of Perpetuem and put them on ice so I could simply grab and go over the next few hours, and headed off to her Mom’s for some better accommodations than a mummy bag.

Instead of going lap by lap, here are a few bullet point items and thoughts from the 'through the night' portion of the race.  Nota bene, most of these are garbled in my mind as ‘god-knows-what-loop-it-exactly-happened’ format.  I remember:

-  *  Catching back up with Mike at about 4 or 5 hours. He looked like he was tired and hurting.  This troubled me because it was way too early for him to look tired or hurt.

-  *  Bill Howard showed up and joined in the fray, helping to pace me and Mike in the early a.m. hours. Bill was more awake and speedy after midnight than anyone out there, and walking with him was a challenge.  He and Mike left me in the dust.

   *  Speaking of walking fast, Jeff and I caught up to G.A.C.ers Norm Sheppard and Melanie Haber.  Norm was pacing Mel during the 12 hour, and Norm was telling me about his VT100 race, and all I could do was half listen because their walking pace was faster than a slow jog for me!

-  *  I note my marathon split time was 6:05, which is damn near 14 minutes a mile... not a good sign considering I had a 'fast' start.

-  *  I believe I changed my shoes at 23 miles, which ironically is when the real 'BIG' mistake happened because my feet were swollen, and I could not get them back into a pair of trainers.  I had to resort to a pair of racing flats, which helped with the soreness in my foot for a little while, but eventually, after 22 more miles in their relative light cushioning, brought me to my end.

-  *  I met a 'Marathon Maniac'.  We talked about how I-95 in Connecticut is awful, because she was stuck in the traffic their Friday and she was a 1/2 hour late to start.  We also had a 'small world' connection regarding Bucks County in Pennsylvania.  We shared stories about Peace Valley Park.  That was a good conversation that happened at a very early hour of the morning, it was sort of surreal, and I never once asked her what her name was...I feel like a dufus for this!

    *  There is a Honey Dew Donuts on the course... I could smell the fresh donuts being unloaded at 3 a.m. from a quarter mile away... it was delightful. 
Beyond the Bullet points, here is a little more about some of the bigger moments of the through the night and into the dawn portion of the race.

After doing some serious work for me, Jeff decided he had to get back home and get some rest.  At this point I was on my own, as Bill and Mike were working well together, and I was still having some general foot and stomach issues to work through.  I will take this opportunity to say that pacers and crew are also valuable from the standpoint of getting you in and out of the aid stations.  Once Mike and I were back together on a similar pace during the middle of the night I think we subconsciously were using each other to linger during the times of changing gear and refueling.  It sort of reminded me of a night out with the guys, when mass quantities of certain beverages had been consumed.  There was much laughter and joking, but little in the way of purpose and progress.  It wasn't a bad thing, because the night can be the toughest part, and the company and help Mike provided was great, but we definitely were violating one of the principles of ultra running:  Relentless Forward Progress.  Then again, at that point we had another 17 or 18 hours to go, so there was plenty of time to make up the lost time! 

Eventually the sore feet made me think a lot about dropping out of the race.  These thoughts started trickling in my mind around the marathon split at 6 hours, but I tried to push that away and keep moving.  As the next two loops rolled by, and Mike and Bill seemed to push further ahead, I started to feel the next low point settling in.  Then suddenly, somewhere on the loop where we made it past the 50k mark, I got a surge of energy.  My running intervals became more effective, and in no time I could see I was gaining ground on Bill and Mike.  Mike was wearing sun glasses with multi-colored, blinking LED lights, and even with my visual impairment I could see him off in the distance.  Holding on to this new found energy I surged by Bill and Mike, and kept efficiently moving forward.  I wanted to slow down and run with them, and I certainly was not interested in competitively putting distance between myself and them, but I wanted to ride the wave of energy as long as I could. 

When I finished this loop I didn’t even think about stopping by the Hotel Shamrock.  Instead I filled my bottle with Heed from the race's aid station just after the timing chute, grabbed some Hammer Gel and Endurolytes, and made my way out on the course for the next loop. 

This strategy worked well because it got me back on to the course without any thoughts of dropping as I marinated in my own sweat and self-loathing in the tent.  In fact, as I started this next loop I decided I would dedicate the next three laps to my Grandparents that have passed away.  No thoughts about dropping because no matter what I owe loops to Nana and Grandpa O'D, and Grampa Mac.  Along the lake I kept looking back expecting to see Mike’s glasses advancing toward me like some ‘Christmas lights’ version of the Dread Pirate Roberts’ ship, but to my amazement there were no signs of them.

As the hours passed and the world started to slowly go from the suspended animation of overnight, to the slow and sporadic trickle of folks waking in the pre-dawn hours, my feet were getting progressive more and more sore.  Upon completion of the next loop I tried to find a remedy back at the tent and the race aid station, but it just seemed like I’d have to bear it.

The next loop was progressively slower, but I could see the horizon beginning to change from the tar paper blackness of deep night to a dawn-harbinger purple.  It was a good sign, and I had hoped all the stories of runners getting a lift at dawn were true.

As I finished this loop, I ran into a familiar face climbing out of his car – Steve Latour!  It was awesome seeing Steve, as he is another old trail friend that I don’t get to see often enough, and it helped me to not think too much about my feet.  Steve was looking to pace Julie O. for the last couple hours of her 12 hour run, but also offered his pacing assistance later on if I was interested.  I certainly was, but I was not sure my feet were going to allow many more miles.

Once again, I used the 'avoid Hotel Shamrock' strategy, and just relied on the aid station’s Heed and Hammer Gels to get me through the next loop.  About halfway through the loop I noticed a familiar sight off in the pre-dawn light – Mike and his Technicolor glasses!  As I pulled alongside of him, he was not in good shape, he looked ragged and worn out, and he admitted he fell asleep a couple of times, nearly ending up in the lake on one occasion.  We walked along together for a little while, but after a while it was clear he was in need of a nap or some caffeine.  As for me, my feet just wanted to be done with this loop, and I did my best to just shuffle along during what was supposed to be a running interval.

When I completed my second to last loop I noted it was approaching 5:40 in the morning, or 10:40 in race time.  This was about the time I realized I was not going to miraculously make it to 24 hours, and 100k seemed very much in doubt. 

Steve was there to pace, and as I prepared what was to be my final bottle of Perpetuem, it was hard to answer Steve when he asked how I was feeling.  Sure, I want to be tough, but I felt broken inside, and I just wanted to push myself out for another loop.  As a matter of perspective, my split times for each loop had started in the low 40’s and since the 'inspired' loop when I passed Mike & Bill, my splits for the 3.17 mile course were as follows:

- 45:35 'inspired loop'
- 58:08 
- 60:24
- 76:19, final loop

Steve fought like a warrior-poet to keep me going past this last loop, but ultimately the degree of pain that was being inflicted on my feet simply from walking was too much to endure and at 45.25 miles and 11 hours and 52 minutes I called it quits.

As I sat there in the lobby of the Hotel Shamrock I was disappointed, but satisfied that I endured the sore feet that started nearly 6 hours and 19 miles earlier.  Even with the satisfaction amid the disappointment I have been left in a world of wonder…  I wonder how much more I could have given; I wonder how much more I’ll ever be able to endure; I wonder if I’ll ever be strong enough, physically and mentally, for a 100 miler.    

Jen arrived about 15 minutes after I dropped, and was amazed that I was done.  She looked like she was dressed to join me for a loop or two, so that made me a bit disappointed that I dropped.  Then again, my feet, even with shoes off, were in howling for cushioning.

All told, I loved the experience of running through the night and seeing all of the changes from dusk until dawn.  I also learned the importance of pacers and crew, and how I have way more support and friends out there than originally thought.

In a purely evaluative moment, when I look at how I fueled during the race, I feel like I had lots of success with everything I ate.  The Hammer Perpetuem seemed to work really well for the majority of the race, though, at about six hours the bland taste was too much for me, and I drank a bunch of Gatorade for some added sweetness.  Oddly enough, I had very little of the burritos I made, and got by through the night with Honey Stinger gels, Hammer gels, gummie bears, and chocolate covered coffee beans.  I also had a couple quarters of peanut butter and jelly early on, but relied on the other items above for the majority of the rest of the twelve hours.  I was drinking about 24 ounces of fluid an hour on account of the humidity, mostly Perpetuem, with a couple bottles of Heed, one mixed with Coca-Cola.  I was clearly hydrated the whole time.  Since I was fueling with mostly Hammer Nutrition products, I stuck with Endurolytes during the race, too, which I hadn't really used before, but seemed to do what they needed to do.  Unfortunately, nothing I ate or drank could cure sore feet!

As I have said above in a few different places, many thanks to everyone that supported me; Your assistance and friendship are things that are priceless in my eyes, and are appreciated more than you can know.

Also, congrats to Mike St. Hillaire, who came back from his zombified form early in the morning to finishing the 24 hour strong, completing 80+ miles in 23 + hours, and, most importantly, raising over $1,000 for Children’s Hospital.  Here’s a link to his account of the day:

This ragged trail animal is done with the road ultras for a little while.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in redeeming myself around the lake, but I need better cushioning for my paws the next time around (and around and around....).

For now, I am going to curl up in the corner and dream of the next trail ultra….

Until next time, (shhhhhh….) Happy Trails!      

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Pineland Farms 50 Miler - Short Version

I have not been very good to my blog, I know.  It has been over three months since posting, but I have really had a 'shut up and train' attitude.

In the past three months I have run two races, including the Pineland Farms 50 Miler in Maine a couple days ago.

I owe the readers of this blog a couple posts in greater detail about where I have been and what I have been doing leading up to Pineland, but in the interest of time I'll give you some quick notes on my Pineland Farms experience.

Finish - 10 hours, 46 minutes, 56 seconds -- new trail 50 mile PR by 55 minutes!

First, it is a fantastic event!  Even for runners like me that do their 50 miles over the course of hours that number in the double digits, you still see the festival at the start finish area when you complete the various loops of the course that make up each 15.5 mile lap.

Second, I am not sure there is such thing as a 'perfect' day when it comes to running 50 miles.  Once the dust settled, I am VERY happy with my finish and my time, but the day was one that had so many challenges.  Then again, for those that have run ultras, I think we understand that over the course of 50 miles you will be challenged.

Third, the word of the day for me, especially given my comment above, was adaptation.  I came into the race with a plan... scratch that.... I came into the race with a well thought out plan, and as the day unfolded - even within the first 3.5 miles - I needed to re-evaluate and make decisions on the spot that were vital to my success and survival.

Fourth, finishers are winners.  I don't say this in arrogance at all, but the 50 miler at Pineland Farms seemed to have about a 33% rate of entrants that DNS'd, DNF'd, or dropped down to another race distance.  I think I finished 109th out of about 120, but am not disappointed at all, because I know how freaking hard I had to work just to get there.  There is NO fudging your way through 50 miles.

Fifth, I am starting to really like the experience of doing the 50 mile distance... this could be a problem.

Finally, I am so blessed to have the ability to do these, and am blessed twice to have friends and family that support and enjoy these events with me.

Hoping to do a more detailed post later...

Happy Trails!