Monday, April 23, 2012

SoCal Ragnar Relay 2012

A “Ragnar” race is a 200 mile relay race that teams of 12 or 6 (ultra) cover over two days. The relay is meant to have all runners regardless of ability participate in an endurance event that not only tests your legs but also highlights the incredible sense of community that runners have with one another. The teams are released in waves so faster teams start later and hopefully most teams finish around the same time. Team vans are decorated, there are some very suspect costume choices but everyone is excited and having a blast.

Runner #5
I have never participated in a relay race and most of my races are of the solo variety with the exception of ultra marathons where I may have a crew. I am relatively new to ultras so having a crew has been my saving grace on many occasions. When I do not want to take another step they provide not only physical but emotional support in the inevitable dark moments; without them I would have been toast.

This race shares a similar dynamic crew/support and a runner with the exception that we all rotate and shift our roles. In addition to cheering your runner there are over 500 other teams doing the same so it quickly becomes a love fest all the way around. You cheer for others and they cheer for you.

The course was from Huntington Beach, out to Corona and Lake Elsinore then through the 78 to Carlsbad and down to Coronado. Looking at my 3 legs I figured it would be good training and just a pleasant experience, but it ended up being so much more. Well here is the break down…my only goal for the event was not to get passed and to be the best crew/teammate I could be for the runners and other participants around me. So here it is.

Essential Equipment
Shorts: NorthFace Cardiac (used in Calico 30k (Report) and LA26.2 / Patagonia Long Haulers – my std short nowadays, it is short but the 80s retro style works for me.
Jacket: NF Better than Naked Jacket (used on second leg at night, perfect to not overheat and block the mist) / NF Torpedo (between legs to stay warm)
Headlamp: Black Diamond Sprinter – the race requires a red blinker light so this light was perfect
Hydration: Ultimate Direction Handhelds (Review)
Accessories: Garmin 310XT (battery life ensured I could capture every leg and keep splits), Headsweats Visor, Oakley Radar Glasses, Pearl Izumi Sun Sleeves/Moeben Arm Warmers – when it gets hot soak them and reduce that core temp, when cold they cut the wind and let you keep light yet warm.

Leg #1 – 2.59 miles – 9:56 avg pace

This was a short 2.5 leg and the stop lights killed me. I met the team 10 minutes before I had to start running up the hill. There were a few false summits so I would commit some energy only to find that I had to keep climbing. I felt really good on the downhill and was able to keep my legs turning despite having expended a little too much on the uphill.
I caught a few runners on the way up and almost got caught myself, beating the pursuer by 150/200 yards. I felt weird repeating my mantra… “catch the tutu, catch the tutu” but at Ragnar I guess that is normal.

a lot of teams were counting how many people they passed, i.e. "kills" or "roadkills" we simply ran to have fun, passed and got passed but loved every minute of it
Leg #2 – 5.81 Miles – 7:43 avg pace

I felt like a wimp before this leg. It started at 1:46 AM; I was exhausted and really not in the mood to run. My body wanted to shut down. This is when I realized how much crewing/supporting was taking out of me. Supporting other runners was mentally taxing and around 10 pm I just focused on napping in the van and hydrating. It felt so much easier to run than it did to support because making sure your runner is good you quickly forget to take care of yourself. Literally 20 minutes before I was supposed to run I was scrambling to get motivated, I threw down some NOS (energy drink) and a snickers bar from an AM/PM…I could just not get out of the funk. When I saw John 20 yards from the exchange after trekking through the night it was all the motivation I needed. It was pretty much a wake up slap to know the team is counting on you and everyone was cranking out amazing efforts given the conditions I had no right to complain. (note: I still complained a little, mea culpa)
This leg was a blessing, a nice downhill run in the dark. I could not see too far ahead of me so instead of running on the side of the road I ventured towards the middle until I saw a car coming then I would head back to the side. The first few minutes I felt weak and just not in sync, my body did not want to push out the miles at that hour. At mile 2-ish I saw the team van pass honking and cheering and it was an adrenaline rush. I was 20 yards behind another runner and just blazed right past them. I then focused on catching the next blinking red light…next thing I knew I cranked out a 23 min 5k and at the end avg 7:43 pace with a best pace of 5:03.

Runner 6 – Hill – 2.51 miles – 11:59 avg pace

In the car prior to my leg Anh agreed to let me pace her up the hill at the start of her leg. The hill was not only intimidating because of its length, 2.5 miles, but also at night you just never know when it would end. At the exchange I gave her the slap bracelet and we both took off into the night. This was my favorite part of the race hands down. 

I told her that we would break down the hill into manageable sections. My concern was that sitting in the car for a while then attempting to get too much out of our sore legs would blow out the calves and make running tougher that it had to be. We worked up the hill together. In the first 25% of the hill we were passed by a few eager runners and it took a lot of humility to pause and hike sections when the van was passing by, but it paid dividends. We passed all those runners about 75% up the hill and still had energy to spare. At the top we actually asked a volunteer if we had already finished the hill since Anh still had a huge smile and was still able to run while others were barely walking.

Leg #3 – 7.48 miles – 8:44 avg pace

At the start of this leg I saw someone at the exchange wearing Hoka’s (big moon shoes) and said hi and asked how she liked them. When she turned to talk to me and I recognized her from Daily Mile it was Diana (link). So cool to meet up with someone who I only “know” virtually. This report is getting long so I will be brief. I decided to lay it down on this one and do whatever I had left in the tank. I overheated a little and was soaking myself with cold water quite a bit. The van was a huge help on this one, they would leap frog me every few miles and I would just pour water over myself, it was heaven. I never got passed and caught a few runners on the uphill and even gave another runner most of the salt caps I had since he was cramping.

In summary we drank beer (thank you Stone Brewery) and I made a new friends. This report would be way too long if I went into all the details so I limited it to the legs I ran. But Charlie, Nicolette, Jerry, John, Anh are amazing individuals. Second leg, Jerry set the tone and ran with the setting sun in Lake Elsinore. John’s second leg really just set me up and inspired me to perform way above what I thought I could and Anh just crushed hills and smiled the whole way. Charlie’s third leg was brutal when he faced some false summits and an uphill finish. Nicolette on her third leg worked cramps and finished strong running along the beach.  The other van (6 per van) were just as inspiring dealing with temps in the high 90s through Corona and finishing up in Coronado smiling and happy. I really hope that I get invited back to participate with this group in the future. They are a balanced bunch that smiles a lot and stays happy and that’s really what it’s all about. 
Team Picture after 200+ miles

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

American River 50 - 2012 - Race Report

First of all I did not write a Los Angeles 26.2 race report because I was actually doing it as my long run for the AR50. That being said I did learn a few things during that race and used those new insights at AR50 with great success so I will be referencing to LA26.2 throughout this report so sorry about the length of this one.
This year I had an experienced crew, Sam. She was there for the epic DNF of 2011 and for some pretty huge successes since and knows what to look for so that was a huge mental burden I did not have to deal with. Kristin was also there crewing for Roberto and Pedro, although Pedro was running so well he probably did not really need a crew (more on this later).
Last year I DNF from this race at the Beal's Point aid station. It was a tough blow to my morale but it lit a fire within me to do it better the next time and to put in the hours of prep needed to achieve the sub 11 hr goal. I owe a lot of that to Coach Jeff from PRS Fit. He did not let me quit on myself and always seems to know what to say when my training logs are not where they should be. So big thanks to him and the PRS Fit coaching staff and teammates. I am going to break down the report into the chunks with aid stations as reference. Honestly I got into the "zone" for this one and believe it or not a large chunk of the race is a blur. 

Garmin 310XT
Oakey Radar Sunglasses
iPod Shuffle 
Salomon XT Advanced Skin 5 S-Lab Set (review) 
Ultimate Direction FastDraw Plus Bottle (review)
Brooks Tech Tee (used at LA26.2 - nothing new)
NorthFace Flite Series Shorts (used at Calico 30k) - Race Report
NF Better Than Naked Jacket
DryMax Hyperthin Socks (used in LA26.2)
Newton Gravity
Hoka OneOne Mafate
Altra Instinct (review)/Altra Lone Pine

Gels: Hammer Gels, PowerBar Gels, GU (yup in training I practiced mixing it up just in case I needed more nutrition than I planned for)
Additional: PB&J / Flat Coke, Vitargo S2 (awesome product that kept me strong at LA26.2 with ZERO stomach issues)
SaltStick Salt Caps, Hammer Endurolytes

Garmin Data Link
Avg Heart Rate: 143 bpm
Max Heart Rate: 238 bpm

Elevation Profile - the last 5k is just straight up, literally

Start Line
Mentally I was in a good place. I had set a huge PR at the LA26.2 reducing my time from 4:56:28 to a 4:05:19 so I had loads of confidence, but the feeling of that DNF lingered. My friend Roberto and his brother Pedro were also going to be running AR so it was a boost to know that I had friends on the course who were going through the same things I was. Pedro had a goal of sub 9 hrs, Roberto was projecting 10:30 and I was planning on 10:59:59. My only goal was to get past Beal's Point before cut offs and if possible have a qualifying run for Western States. I ran the Rocky Road 100 (Report) using my heart rate as a guide and it allowed me to keep up on my nutrition/hydration needs and avoid blow ups. So AR50 was all about BPM and nutrition; no splits, no projections, nada.
PB&J action

As the race started I found myself running with Roberto but my heart rate shot up to the 180s so I let him go and reined in my effort. I arrived at William Pond (8.16 miles) feeling good and really in a state of calm. I focused on keeping good running form and my heart rate withing the 140-148 range. This feeling of calm continued through Negro Bar (22.4 miles). Generally, I am a "chatty kathy" during races. I love talking to other runners but this time I listened to music most of the first section. I did not want to go out fast and I needed to be in my own head rather than keeping other runners paces.

Negro Bar (22.4) -  Beal's Point (26.53)
Negro Bar - AR50 - 2012
In 2011 I threw up until I had no more at this Negro Bar. When I arrived last year there were a handful of volunteers and 3 or 4 cars in the parking lot. I arrived and was shocked at the amount of spectators. Everyone was cheering all the runners on and hoping to catch of glimpse of their loved ones. I saw families, dogs, strangers with signs about Chuck Norris never running an Ultra, etc., it was awesome. Pedro, Roberto and Myself were being crewed by Kristen and Sam.
Negro Bar 2012

Negro Bar - 2011
When I arrived at the aid station they informed me that Roberto was a few minutes up the road. Running with a friend would be awesome and knowing that I was going to run out of road and downhills pretty soon I picked up the pace. I caught R. a few miles before Beal's Point. We ran together for a few minutes. I was feeling very anxious at this point because I was well ahead of schedule (cut-off times) and anything after Beal's was a win for me. We climbed together for a section, but noticing that I still had plenty of bounce R. told me to go ahead so I drafted off some other runners and took full advantage of all the downhills and arrived at Beal's with tears.
I was simply emotional. I feared this aid station above all others. I know the heartache that it caused me last year and was so thankful to arrive and see happy people! Last time I was here it looked like a make-shift ER. Runners laying across the grass rubbing their legs and looking defeated. I felt like a Phoenix rising last years race and shaking off the ashes. I saw Sam and she was really happy for me and surprised I was holding on to really good splits. I wanted to stay longer but I knew that I needed to keep on moving or I would be sucked into a lull with the tough parts of the race still ahead.

Granite Bay (31.67) - Horseshoe Bar (38.14) - Rattlesnake Bar (40.94)
This section is where the Back to Back long runs earned their keep in my training cycle. I knew I was tired and my legs were wanting to tap out. But I knew this feeling from training so I eased off and power hiked the uphills while maintaining a quick turn over on the flats and downhills. AR50 is an uphill course and taking advantage of any break the trail gives you is essential.
When you leave an aid station in an ultra marathon one of two things happen. You have an energy boost from your crew/spectators and go out too hard or you rein it in and conserve. If you go out to hard you could pay for it dearly, but if you conserve that energy I have found it is an exponential return. Mentally I feel that going "easy" I am able to talk myself back into running when the inevitable dark spots arrive since I "saved" it.
Ultras are a battle where your body and mind fight all day and argue about how to achieve the goal. Training is where you practice the balancing act and if you stick to it amazing happens. Once the single track began I was fortunate to catch a group of 5-8 runners who were working together and cranking it out. It was a silent camaraderie of suffering. All of us looked spent and like we wanted to stop, but when you looked around and saw everyone was in the same boat you could not help but draw from that group energy.
Unexpected off the trail at Granite Bay

The plan was to change from road shoes into a trail shoe and from a pack to handhelds for the roller single track sections that lay ahead at Granite Bay. My legs hurt but were responsive and my heart rate stayed manageable so I felt comfortable. I arrived at Granite Bay and saw a surprised Sam standing in the crowd. I think they did not expect to see me so soon. She ran to the car to grab the change of shoes and the water bottles. As she turned away my legs tightened up and I knew that lingering any longer meant cramps and I could not afford it. I also saw the group of runners who pushed through the last few miles leaving the aid station. So I grabbed some gels and headed out with them foregoing the shoes and handhelds.
This decision ended up being a non-factor. I ran well with them and even though the road shoes were not helpful on the trail I managed. The group of runners were running so well and suffering united everyone and that motivation was worth missing the shoe change. Also I did not want to get stuck behind a different pack that may not be running with the same intensity since passing on the single track is difficult because most runners by this point are listening to music or are so focused on moving ahead that they forget to let others pass. 
At Horseshoe Bar (38.14) my brain went into race mode. Most of the pack stopped to fill their water bottles and since I still had my Salomon Pack on I decided to make a move. I grabbed a few cups of flat coke, put some table salt on an orange and walked out of the aid station alone 30-40 seconds after arriving. I wanted to feel chased. I wanted force myself to give it all I had. I knew the last 3-4 miles there was a 1,000 ft climb and I thought that if I could get there before this pack I had a chance at holding them off to the finish.

Rattlesnake Bar (40.94) - Dowdin's Post (43.92) - Last Gasp (47.56) - Finish (50)
I ran as fast as I could and held off a few of the members of the pack, even passing a few solo runners in this section. I did get passed back by a couple of them but this "avoid getting passed"mentality kept my mind off my beat up body. Running into Rattlesnake Bar I saw Sam who quickly apologized for not being ready at Granite. It actually worked out well, I told her why I had taken off down the trail and thanked her for having my stuff ready and being such a great crew/photographer (best in the biz). I changed into a trail shoe. She had prepared 2 ultimate Direction handhelds with a Vitargo S2 mix in them and headed out. I had used Vitargo S2 exclusively at the LA26.2 and I had no stomach issues with consistent energy.
I think the Vitargo S2 saved me at this point. I was getting pretty low on energy and getting easily digestible calories helped me avoid the low I felt coming on. I spent a lot of energy "fleeing" from the pack. I took in the Vitargo as well as maintaining my gel every 30-35 minutes. Keeping the gels going was tough because you just don't want to eat anything at all in the later miles so the Vitargo really was a blessing. The roughly 500 calories per bottle helped me hydrate and get nutrition.
I arrived to Dowdin's Post and saw Chris, Pedro's pacer. I immediately asked if Pedro had dropped. He said that Pedro actually ran off without him (see what I mean about not needing a crew, guy is a beast). So Chris generously offered to pace me to the finish line. This was a huge score for me. I was getting weaker running by myself and noticed my effort slipping. Chris was an awesome motivator, we chatted all along the rollers and on that last climb he really helped keep my mind in the race.
Anytime my heart rate shot above 150 my legs cramped. Chris helped keep me moving well and we even passed a runner on the way up, it was pretty awesome.
few hundred yards from the end - nope not a smile that is just grit

So what happened? A 9:31:46 finishing time. I took 2+ hours off my previous 50 mile PR, which was actually on the exact same course, Rock'n River 50, except it was downhill as opposes to uphill, I know weird but I will take it. Pedro PR'd clocking somewhere around 8:30-ish, Roberto got a sub 11 hour finish with a 10:30-ish finish...a few minutes off his expected finishing time so we both locked in Western States qualifiers.
After a massage from Monsters of Massage = happy

Since it was me running there is always an element of haphazardness just comes standard. As Sam was driving us away I decided to check what my "official finishing time" was...the website proudly displayed "still on course." I panicked when I realized I never changed the timing chip on the shoes when I changed at Rattlesnake. Sam was cool headed and after talking to the RD Julie Fingar we got it sorted out. Big save for Sam; like I said best in the biz.